Federal sanctions imposed on 15 of Haiti’s most prominent power brokers have not resulted in asset seizures or freezes, despite the presence of those assets in Canada.
Under pressure from the Biden administration to take the lead on Haiti, and a request from the Haitian government to send a military force to restore order to the troubled island, Justin Trudeau’s government based its approach instead on the punishment of individuals he claims to be involved in the country’s current humanitarian crisis.
“This cannot be a solution imposed from outside, the helpful friend bringing help,” Prime Minister Trudeau said at the Francophonie Summit in Tunisia in November. “That’s why we are carrying out sanctions.”
In fact, Canadian officials have criticized other countries for not following Canada’s approach.
“We are taking leadership on the issue,” Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said in Tunisia, “and we call on international partners to do the same and impose sanctions on the individuals we have sanctioned.”
“We are leading the way on sanctions and frankly, we would like to see other governments play a bigger role, including the United States,” Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, told The House of CBC on January 13.
But CBC News has learned that, despite the presence of assets in Canada that could be sanctioned, not a single dollar belonging to any of the 15 prominent Haitians sanctioned by Canada has been frozen or seized.
Disappointment in Haiti
Monique Clesca is a former UN official and a prominent member of Haiti’s Montana Accord, a coalition that seeks to unite the country’s opposition to unelected Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Haiti has been overwhelmed by gang violence since the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moise, in July 2021.
She said that when Canada began sanctioning members of Haiti’s political elite in early November last year, many Haitians welcomed the news.
“It grabbed the headlines and the reaction was that something was finally happening,” she told CBC News from Port-au-Prince.
“I think people cheered because of that – at least someone is doing something. That’s one of the policies that we had advocated for, that partners should follow the money and enforce the laws in their country.”
Clesca said he was shocked to learn that the sanctions had produced no real action.
“I’m surprised because Canada is a state and a country that has a functioning government. Canada has made a big deal out of these sanctions,” she said.
“When I say it made a big deal out of it, we have Minister Joly talking about it, Prime Minister Trudeau talking about it and the ambassador talking about it.”
“They are outcasts”
Although the government has not seized or frozen any assets belonging to the 15 sanctioned men, Joly’s department says the sanctions still had an effect.
“Those sanctioned are subject to transaction bans,” a Global Affairs spokesperson said.
“As a result, registrants cannot access Canada’s financial system and businesses, they cannot conduct financial activities or transactions in Canada or with Canadians. This constitutes a criminal offence. This creates a huge opportunity cost for registrants who might otherwise have engaged in business relationships.
“In other words, the sanctioned individuals will not be able to do anything with Canada. They are outcasts. And when we impose sanctions in coordination with our allies — as we did with the United States — these individuals have virtually nothing to do. goes.”
Clesca agreed that the sanctions have damaged the reputations of the politicians involved.
“There’s the moral value of punishment, which is that society has its standards and the word ‘sanction’ itself is not a nice or welcome word,” she told CBC News. “They have families, children, etc. So there’s a shame, I think, in that.”
Denomination and shame
Recent developments suggest that at least some of those 15 are chafing under the sanctions. Former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe has threatened legal action against the Government of Canada. This week, former Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant wrote to the UN Secretary General protesting Canada’s sanctions; he said he had retained the services of a Canadian law firm to represent him.
Clesca said the “shame” could even put a damper on some of the men’s political plans, as Haiti’s oligarchs jockey to eventually replace the unpopular Henry.
“These people were the ones who were probably thinking about preparing their campaigns whenever there was an election,” Clesca said. “Some of them were speaking quite loudly. And some of them, since being disciplined, have stopped speaking publicly.”
Financial institutions – always reluctant to clash with foreign governments, particularly in the United States – may also refuse to do business with sanctioned individuals.
“This prevents them from supporting corruption and the illegal activities of armed gangs,” the Global Affairs spokesperson said. “This is having a real impact on the ground. The benchmark Haitian newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, called the sanctions a “political earthquake”.
(Le Nouvelliste made use this term — in November, when the sanctions were new and their practical application was unknown.)
A mansion in Laval
But while they greeted Canada’s sanctions as better than nothing, many Haitians had hoped to see those who enriched themselves at their expense forced to pay.
“Sanctions are a bit like a smokescreen to justify that, yes, Canada is taking a leadership role,” said Haitian-Canadian activist Frantz André, a member of Solidarité Québec-Haiti. He first shed light on the purchase in 2020 of a extravagant villa in Laval-sur-le-lac, Quebec, by now-sanctioned Haitian senator Rony Celestin.
Célestin’s wife, Marie Louisa Aubin Célestin is one of five Haitian consuls in Montreal; his name appeared on the cash purchase deed of the $4.25 million house in December 2020. Five months later, she shared title to the house with her husband.
The transaction led to an investigation by Haiti’s anti-corruption body, the Anti-Corruption Unit (ULCC).
“We heard about this investigation,” André said. “But so far we’re talking over two years and we still don’t know what this investigation does.”
The ULCC, like much of the Haitian government, ceased to function normally as the country slid into chaos. Its director Claudy Gassant was found dead in the Dominican Republic in 2021.
Haitian Senator Willot Joseph accused Célestin last June of ordering Gassant’s murder. Celestin denied the allegation, and Dominican police ruled the death a suicide.
Celestin argued that the source of his wealth is his business interests in PetroGaz Haiti – a company with a website which describes major global operations, including hundreds of oil rigs and dozens of refineries. But research by CBC News found no evidence of such a large-scale enterprise.
The US Treasury Department claims that the real source of Celestin’s wealth is Drug traffic. Brian E. Nelson, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, last month described Célestin and another Haitian senator as “corrupt Haitian politicians abusing their power to continue drug trafficking activities in the region. “.
The Treasury Department accuses Celestin of trafficking drugs from Venezuela to Haiti, then to the United States and the Bahamas.
André said the Célestin mansion in Laval is a clear example of an asset acquired through corruption and that the Government of Canada should have acted against it as soon as the sanctions took effect.
“Canada needs to show it has taken action,” he said. “Seize the assets, say how much the assets are worth, and return them to legitimate Haitians in Haiti.”
Clesca said the Quebec villa has become a well-known symbol of corruption in Haiti.
“This is an iconic and most obvious case, so I think it behooves Canada to explain why it hasn’t moved forward with this particular case, as well as all the others,” she said. .
“I am very surprised that in a case like this nothing came of it.”