Cash-strapped Haiti has an image problem. The government is spending thousands to fix it

Jacqueline Charles
Miami Herald
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More than 4.4 million are facing a hunger crisis. Inflation remains in the double digits and poverty is rising.

But none of that is stopping Haiti’s cash-strapped government from digging into its meager coffers to pay expensive U.S. lobbyists to help its embattled president, who is increasingly facing criticism from members of Congress and calls from Haitians to step down.

In the last month, the impoverished nation has added at least four new high-powered members to its lobbying team in the United States, according to foreign registration filings with the U.S. Justice Department. The new hires include a former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a former chief of staff at the Organization of American States and two influential Democratic donors.

Demonstrators march in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 14, 2021, to protest against the government of President Jovenel Moise.

It’s all part of President Jovenel Moïse’s effort to get positive international press as detractors accuse him of trying to install a dictatorship with autocratic policies and a push to change the country’s constitution through a controversial June 27 referendum that Haitian legal experts say is illegal.

The government’s spending on lobbyists comes as it turns to printing money and delaying payments, including paychecks to police, teachers and other government employees. Domestic revenues are down, public spending is up and the country’s budget deficit is growing at an alarming rate, according to information provided by economists during a recent international summit on Haiti’s finances and economy. Meanwhile, the United Nations recently announced that it was looking for $235 million for 1.5 million Haitians facing food insecurity, which leaves another 2.9 million people still uncovered by the country’s national budget.

“I find it doubly tragic that money is being spent to support American lobbyists who use political access to get things done and taking the food out of the mouths of hungry Haitians. But two, the whole purpose is to circumvent democratic process,” said Fulton Armstrong, a Haiti expert and senior faculty fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.

Records show that the Haitian government contracts amount to at least $804,000 a year in lobbying fees. The actual amount, however, is much higher. One of the firms, Mercury Public Affairs, routes its Haiti contract through Mercury International UK Ltd, according to the firm’s disclosure, and it is unclear what the total contract is worth because it has not been disclosed publicly.

On the other side of the Haiti crisis are lobbying efforts to counter the government’s message, with the Estopinan Group LLC, run by Art Estopinan, a former chief of staff to Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., representing businessman Dr. Reginald Boulos, who has emerged as a vocal critic of Moïse.

“Our focus has been on the deteriorating human rights situation in Haiti with all of the kidnappings and the violence that have been breaking the country apart,” said Estopinan, who worked for Ros-Lehtinen for 27 years.

Most of the Haitian government’s contracts list the nation’s embassy in Washington and its ambassador, Bocchit Edmond, as the contractors. The contracts are tied to a larger pool of dollars being spent by the Haitian government on billboards and banners touting a controversial June constitutional referendum, trips by ministers and members of the provisional electoral council to support and explain the initiative, and citizen outreach at home and abroad.

“Events in Washington have wide repercussions, especially for small, insular states facing tremendous challenges,” Edmond said. “At present, our country is dealing with serious security issues that require pursuing all avenues to obtain assistance. National security is a costly business, for all states.”

He added that with the U.S. concentrating on its own issues, vulnerable countries like Haiti must find ways to get their voices heard in the corridors of power.

“Haiti is by no means the only country that is working very hard to reach influential policy makers in Congress and in the new administration, which is concentrating on internal issues,” Edmond said. “We are working hard to enlist Haiti’s friends, in all corridors of power, to help broker a solution to the political impasse at home.”

Many Haitians and some members of Congress are calling on the Biden administration to take a tougher stance on Moïse, amid concerns about corruption and human rights violations as Haiti becomes enveloped in a deadly crime wave, political chaos and a bitter constitutional crisis.

Moïse’s detractors say they no longer recognize him as president because his terms ended on Feb. 7, and contend that no credible, fair or transparent elections can be held this year because the electoral commission unilaterally appointed by him lacks legitimacy and credibility. They have been advocating instead for a transitional government, a view shared by some U.S. lawmakers.

Moïse, who has been ruling by decree for the past 15 months, has pushed back. Refusing calls to step down, he has declared that his term ends in February 2022, a view shared by the Biden administration and pushed by lobbyists in press releases, opinion pieces and meetings.

Last month influential Democratic donor Ralph Patino registered his Coral Gables law firm, Patino and Associates, as lobbying on behalf of the Haitian government. Patino is a Democratic fundraiser who helped with Hispanic outreach on behalf of President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. In his firm’s U.S. government filing, Patino said he was contracted for $37,000 a month by the Haitian government.

Patino and Edmond signed a contract in late February and the firm began representing Haiti on March 4. The document states that the firm’s role is to consult and provide strategic advice to the Haitian Embassy to consolidate a positive relationship with the U.S.

Patino’s monthly fee is more than most U.S. municipalities pay for Washington lobbyists. According to the documents, the Haitian government was expected to pay $74,000 in advance for March and April to the firm.

To help with the Haiti account, Patino has brought on former U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Walter Brewster Jr. In his filing, Brewster listed himself as a part-time consultant and said he would be paid $15,300. It is unclear if that is monthly. Brewster could not be reached and Patino said his firm doesn’t comment on clients’ contracts.

In addition to Patino and Brewster, two other influential lobbyists were also tapped by Miami-based Latin America Advisory Group, which signed a contract last year with the Haitian government. The firm increased its monthly fee from $8,000 to $25,000 a month after extending its contract through January 2022.

Police fire tear gas at journalists during a march in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 10, 2021, to protest against the government of President Jovenel Moise.

Latin America Advisory Group has brought on Carlos Suarez, a partner at Continental Strategy of Coral Gables, and Los Angeles-based Democratic fundraiser and celebrity adviser Ronald Eric Baldwin to assist with lobbying efforts on behalf of Haiti, according to filings.

Suarez said his role is limited. He’s using his contacts, he said, to ensure that free and fair elections take place in Haiti and “to make sure that accurate information is being delivered and not hearsay.”

Baldwin, who served as executive director for almost four years in Port-au-Prince for actor Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization after the devastating 2010 earthquake, said he decided to get involved in Haiti after watching the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 12 about the country’s ongoing crisis.

“The way that it was presented just felt very incomplete at best,” Baldwin said. “I’m not a professional lobbyist. My connection to Haiti is pretty personal.”

Suarez is a former acting assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He and Baldwin are each getting paid $7,000 a month. Suarez formerly served as chief of staff to former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Carlos Trujillo, who also is his partner at the firm and not involved in the account.

Damian Merlo, the founder of Latin America Advisory Group, said he decided to augment his team with Suarez and Baldwin because of their knowledge of the country.

“I’ve worked in Haiti for nearly 10 years...and was part of Moïse’s campaign team, and am working to better inform U.S. policymakers on the situation in Haiti and to work toward a much needed constitutional referendum and even more important presidential, legislative and local elections,” said Merlo, confirming that Trujillo is not involved in the account.

Also on the Haiti account is the global public relations firm Mercury Public Affairs.

Haiti first turned to Mercury in 2018 after it was reported that President Donald Trump described the country as a “shithole” during a White House meeting. Mercury was hired to manage the country’s “print, television, radio and digital media presence by crafting their narrative,” according to its filing at the time.

That year, Mercury LLC registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as representing the president of Haiti. Vanessa Lamothe, Haiti’s ambassador to France at the time and cousin of its former prime minister, was listed as the contact for the firm to provide media relations services for the president of Haiti.

The arrangement with Mercury has been difficult to track, although in 2019 it listed $312,935 in fees billed to the Embassy of Haiti in Washington as of May 31. Though one of its principal lobbyists on the Haiti contract is former Democratic lawmaker Joe Garcia, payments are made through Mercury’s U.K. office. In its February 2018 registration it listed at the time, a project fee of $10,000 and said it would be paid on a month-to-month basis after December.

Neither Garcia nor Mercury’s vice president responded to a request for comment.

Also with a government lobbying contract is Johanna LeBlanc. In a March 2019 filing, LeBlanc said she was being paid $5,000 a month to interact with “U.S. government officials and public entities in order to promote the interests of the State of Haiti and its citizens in the United States.”

LeBlanc did not respond to either a text or email seeking comment.

Armstrong, the Haiti expert, said when it comes to U.S. foreign policy toward the troubled Caribbean nation, the Biden administration is seemingly reluctant to come up with a new strategy. In that context, the Haitian government’s lobbying efforts just may work.

“You have an administration that is not well-informed, not well-engaged; doesn’t have any senior officials with Haiti experience, doesn’t have a senior assistant secretary of state for Latin America and the acting doesn’t know these issues,” he said.

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