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Revealed: USAID funded group supporting Haitian president in 2011

After the US pushed to overturn the 2010 election, agency gave a political movement backing Martelly support worth $100K

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The U.S. Agency for International Development gave nearly $100,000 to a Haitian political movement with close ties to President Michel Martelly after the country’s 2010 elections, documents obtained by Al Jazeera show. The money was allocated shortly after Washington helped overturn the election results to thrust Martelly into power.

On the afternoon of Haiti’s Nov. 28, 2010, elections, 12 of 18 presidential candidates took the stage at the glamorous Karibe Hotel, high up in the mountains that surround the capital. The elections were a fraudulent mess, they told the gathered press, and the only way out was to cancel the poll and start over. Chaos soon engulfed Port-au-Prince and other cities, as thousands of young Haitians, many clad in the pink synonymous with Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, took to the streets to simultaneously denounce electoral fraud and herald the victory of their candidate, many days before any official results would be announced.

In the midst of the mayhem, key international actors mobilized. At an emergency meeting at the home of the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Edmond Mulet, leading diplomats pushed then-President René Préval to accept their offer of a plane to take him out of the country and avoid further confrontation. Mulet also approached the front-runners, including Martelly, telling them they had secured a spot in the second round and to cease calls for the election’s cancellation. Days later, when the electoral council announced preliminary results that did not have Martelly advancing to the runoff, the streets were once again taken over by largely pro-Martelly protesters. The U.S. Embassy released a statement questioning the announced results, fueling the demonstrations in Port-au-Prince.

The pressure of these pro-Martelly demonstrators — on the day of the elections and during the following weeks — was a key factor in convincing the U.S. and other international actors to intervene in Haiti’s elections and force the electoral authority to change the results of the first round, so as to ensure that Martelly remained on the ballot.

According to numerous firsthand accounts, Mouvement Tét Kale (MTK), a political organization with close ties to Martelly, was active in these street mobilizations. Now documents through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that the U.S. government later provided nearly $100,000 in support to MTK, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The arm of USAID that funded MTK can provide support to political groups, as long as that support is provided to all political parties equally and does not influence election outcomes.

The second round of that election, held in March 2011, was the last election held in Haiti. Mayors across the entire country saw their terms expire in 2012 and were replaced by political appointees who are in power today. Also in 2012, a third of the Senate reached the end of their terms; without new elections, this severely hampered the Senate’s ability to reach a quorum and legislate.

On Jan. 12, 2015, on the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, the terms of the entire Chamber of Deputies and another third of the Senate came to an end, leaving Martelly to govern by decree.

Throughout it all, the U.S. government has stood by the president. On Jan. 11, as leaders scrambled to cobble together a last-minute deal to prevent parliament from dissolving, the U.S. Embassy released a statement dumping cold water on any hopes for an agreement. Even if no deal is reached, it wrote, “the U.S. will continue to work with President Martelly and whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain.”

Aid funds to political groups

It was through the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) arm of USAID, specifically through the for-profit contractor Chemonics, that the support for MTK was provided. Chemonics’ contract with USAID explains that its primary focus is “to support U.S. foreign policy objectives.” Further, while noting that the “OTI cannot create a transition or impose democracy,” the office may “identify and support key individuals and groups … In short, OTI acts as a catalyst for change where there is sufficient indigenous political will.”

In the lead-up to Haiti’s election, the OTI funded campaigns to increase voter turnout that targeted Haiti’s youth, funded Haiti’s first televised debates and created a website to track election news and analysis. It also provided funding to political organizations on opposing sides, according to a former technical adviser who worked for the OTI program for Chemonics and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement with the contractor. USAID funding for political parties is not in and of itself a breach of policy, though it is restricted. The documents indicating $100,000 in support to MTK redact information on any funding to other groups.

USAID’s political party assistance policy, crafted in 2003 under George W. Bush’s administration, encourages support (PDF) to political parties as a way to foster “friends and allies” and develop relations with incoming governments. The policy also covers NGOs that “operate as de facto political parties.” However, support is allowed only under certain terms, including that all democratic parties receive “equitable levels of assistance” and that the funding not affect election results. Waivers must be obtained from the USAID administrator for any financing outside the scope of the policy. USAID press officer Lisa Hibbert-Simpson confirmed in an email that no waivers have been requested in Haiti since the earthquake.

“It was very difficult to be nonpartisan,” the former technical adviser said. At the time, USAID’s program was being run by both Chemonics and Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI). “If one [Mirlande] Manigat supporter goes to DAI and requests support … then OTI would ask Chemonics how to help the other party.” A 2009 Congressional Research Service (PDF) report on the OTI’s activities called the USAID branch “overtly political” and said that while it is subject to the party assistance policy, “its work often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.”

Assad Volcy, a spokesman for the opposition political platform Pitit Dessalines, was unsurprised when shown evidence of U.S. support for MTK. “They give money to control the power,” he said.

‘An electoral movement’

In May 2011, with Martelly’s inauguration just days away, USAID provided a grant of $98,928 to Chemonics to support MTK. According to Chemonics’ internal activity database, the grant was for cleaning up the capital “in advance of the presidential inauguration.” Chemonics and USAID declined to be interviewed for this story. In an emailed statement, USAID said that Chemonics used the money to provide hand tools to MTK to clean the streets as part of a “civic engagement” program.

Both Chemonics and USAID, in separate emails, used the exact same language to describe MTK, calling the group a “network of community-based organizations” — and not a political organization. However, one person who was an MTK member from 2010 to 2014 and who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, explained that from the very beginning, MTK “was a political movement.”

The former MTK member explained that before the election, many Haitians bought pink membership cards declaring themselves the Base of Michel Joseph Martelly (BMJM). The pink cards were supposed to get people jobs with the new government as well as discounts at local businesses. It was also a tremendously successful way to obtain personal information on thousands of potential voters. At the time, analysts noted the similarity to the infamous Tontons Macoutes, the brutal secret police active under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship, which had a similar system of membership cards that yielded patronage and privileges for holders.

The first round of the election was fatally flawed from the beginning. With over a million people still displaced by the earthquake and a cholera epidemic sweeping the country, there was predictably massive disenfranchisement, with most would-be voters simply staying home. Initial results released by the electoral authority put Manigat and Préval’s preferred successor, Jude Célestin, in the runoff election.

For days, throngs of Martelly supporters took to the streets of the capital seeking to push their candidate into the second round. They were clad in their signature pink and loudly declared their support for MTK. Many also carried their pink membership cards. Manigat, his eventual rival in the second round, dubbed the street supporters Martelly’s “pink militia” and warned of the threat to political tolerance that they represented.

“It was an electoral movement,” a current member of MTK, who held various positions in the organization and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said during a recent interview in Port-au-Prince. “After the first round, it was us in the streets protesting … This is the movement that put Martelly into power.” 

The former MTK member said that at first members were given BMJM cards but that after the election they were given new cards, with MTK emblazoned on them. He showed both his now expired cards.

Street pressure and U.S.-led diplomatic pressure succeeded in overturning the first round results, in what Organization of American States (OAS) whistleblower Ricardo Seitenfus later described as a “silent coup.” A mission nominally from the OAS but in reality funded in large part and controlled by the United States government, according to analysts, went to Haiti to analyze the results. What the OAS recommended was unprecedented. Without any statistical basis, the mission said Martelly came in second, ousting Célestin from the runoff. In a private meeting in 2011, the head of the OAS statistical team, Fritz Scheuren, acknowledged that in all his years, he had never otherwise seen an example of an election outcome being reversed without a recount.

In a January 2015 interview in his home in the historic Pacot neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the prime minister at the time, Jean-Max Bellerive, said that when he first received the OAS’ report on the elections, it was clear that the conclusions it reached were not supported by the evidence in the report. According to Bellerive, Mulet would not accept a result that put Célestin in the runoff. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, traveled to Haiti in late January 2011 to push for overturning the first round election. “We tried to resist and did, until the visit of Hillary Clinton. That was when Préval understood he had no way out and accepted” the OAS report, Bellerive said.

Consolidation of power

Sitting in an air-conditioned office behind the gates of Auction City in Haiti’s wealthy Pétionville neighborhood, Georges Racine, the president of MTK, defended the group’s social mission and discussed the relationship between the movement and the party.

“We started the organization based on the needs in Haiti, and so we began to train first responders,” he said, adding that the initial goal was to have MTK first responders in every locality in Haiti. And group members have appeared alongside Haitian first lady and current Senate candidate Sophia Martelly at big events, such as Carnival. Members have been invited to the National Palace to receive certificates for their first-aid training. “At first there was more support,” he said, but now “sponsors are afraid to back the organization because they see it as political.”

But he insisted that MTK is “totally separate” from Martelly’s political party, Parti Haitiene Tét Kale (PHTK). He wasn’t as sure in 2012 after the formation of PHTK, however, when Haiti’s leading daily, Le Nouvelliste, asked about MTK’s relationship with the party. “I can’t tell you if it's a movement, if it’s a party. Contact me on Monday, and I’ll be able to give you more information,” he told the paper.

Michel Martelly, a famous kompa musician who frequently performed for members of Haiti’s brutal military under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, eventually emerged triumphant from the rubble of Haiti’s flawed elections. But he did so without a true political base. Having campaigned on the ticket of a small party, Repons Peyizan, he arrived in office without any congressional allies and with less than 5 percent of the electorate having voted for him.

USAID was quick to point out that “Mouvement Tet Kale is not the same thing as the Tet Kale Party, which came into being in 2012 — a year after the inauguration and the grant.” But Bellerive explained that in Haiti, politicians ride electoral movements to office then consolidate their party afterward. It was no different with Martelly, he said.

In PHTK headquarters, behind a palatial gate and surrounded by lush trees, party representative Roudy Chute explained the role of MTK over the loud hum of an air conditioner. “MTK was a campaign movement, but we needed a political party, and the president agreed,” he said. “So we took from MTK and formed PHTK.”

“After we formed PHTK, some wanted to stay outside the party so they wouldn’t be limited in what activities they could participate in,” he said. “We get help from outside … MTK exists because we need them.” 

Racine, who is active in PHTK, acknowledged that during the election he and other supporters formed MTK in order to “help Martelly.” Asked about his role as head of MTK and his political activism, Racine responded that he “wears two hats.” A Martelly campaign poster from 2010 stared back from the doorway. Racine became secretary of state for the interior, the powerful ministry in charge of internal security, in 2011, though he later quietly resigned after questions arose about his Haitian citizenship.

While waiting to speak with Racine, Al Jazeera witnessed an SUV with tinted windows and government plates drive into the parking lot. Georges Racine’s wife, Magalie Racine, stepped out. Her mother, a powerful Tonton Macoute, ran a notorious torture camp during François Duvalier’ dictatorship, and the family’s ties to figures from that era run deep. In early 2013 she became minister of youth, sports and culture, which has been at the center of corruption allegations involving the first family for years.

Ongoing support?

In MTK’s storage yard, boxes of old clothing stood at least 15 feet high amid cluttered rows of old appliances and furniture. A young man who milled about as trucks came and went, dropping off goods and leaving with fresh cargo, explained that much of the equipment came from Haitian customs, which provides seized goods to Auction City, a large auction yard and also the headquarters of MTK, to be sold. Georges Racine confirmed this. That relationship predates the election of Martelly.

Racine initially said the group received no funds from the U.S. government, but after being presented with evidence of the funding, he acknowledged that USAID provided some support right after the election in 2011. “They stopped after, I think because of apprehension. They never said it, but I suspected it was because they saw us as political,” he said. When he first approached the U.S. government for funding during the campaign, officials offered to build the movement’s first center, but they later backed off, he said.

USAID confirmed by email that “this is the only such grant provided by USAID/OTI, through Chemonics, to MTK.” But whether deliberately or not, the U.S. government continues to provide support for the movement. Racine said that he has had trouble raising funds for MTK and that the main support for the movement at this point comes from Auction City.

Since at least 2003, the U.S. Embassy has sold its old equipment, including cars, through Auction City, providing ongoing indirect support to Racine and his political groups. A former USAID official, who was not authorized to comment on the relationship and asked not to be identified, confirmed that Racine “has big auctions, often of equipment from the international community, specifically USAID … They know him very well.”

Upcoming elections

With no functioning parliament since January, Martelly has scheduled elections by decree, with first round legislative elections scheduled for Aug. 9. Still, a majority of Haitians in a recent poll said they don’t believe elections will be held. If they are, Martelly’s political party will be in a position of strength.

Jean Andre Victor, the coordinator of the opposition platform MOPOD, said in his small office, piled high with old folders and paperwork, that the government consolidates power in order to weaken opposition parties. “Elections for elections’ sake are nothing,” he said. “The international community sees elections as Election Day, but it’s the process that matters to us.”

Having spent three years consolidating its network, without having to compete in any elections, PHTK was able to register more candidates than any other political party. Victor and others allege that nearly half the 128 registered political parties are closely aligned with the president’s party, with their presence on the ballots serving only to obfuscate and divide the vote. 

But if PHTK is successful, it won’t be because of the base of support that pushed Martelly into the presidency. Disillusionment with his government set in quickly. A recent poll showed his approval rating nearly 20 points lower than the national average in the all-important West department, home to the many poorer neighborhoods from which his supporters emerged to take over the streets in 2010.

The former MTK member sat back in his plastic lawn chair, his frustration with the movement clearly evident. “Before the election, they’re your friends, but after, they’re gone. Those that seek change will be disappointed … There is no change with MTK,” he said, shaking his head.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the subhead stated that USAID gave support to MTK shortly after the November 2010 elections. That support was given to the group in May, 2011.

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