Sanctions imposed by the federal government on 15 of Haiti’s most prominent powerbrokers have not led to 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 facing a request from the Haitian government to send a military force to restore order to the troubled island, the government of Justin Trudeau has instead based its approach on sanctioning individuals it claims are involved in the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.
“This cannot be an imposed solution from the outside, the helpful friend bringing forth aid,” Prime Minister Trudeau told the Francophonie Summit in Tunisia in November. “This is why we’re proceeding with sanctions.”
In fact, Canadian officials have criticized other countries for not following Canada’s approach.
“We are taking leadership on the question,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in Tunisia, “and we call on international partners to do the same and impose sanctions on the individuals that we have sanctioned.”
“We’re leading the way on sanctions and frankly, we’d like other governments to play a stronger role, including the United States,” Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, told CBC’s The House 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 swamped by gang violence since the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moise, in July 2021.
She said that when Canada first began sanctioning members of Haiti’s political elite in early November of last year, many Haitians welcomed the news.
“It made huge news and the reaction was that finally something was happening,” she told CBC News from Port-au-Prince.
“I think people rejoiced because of that — at least somebody’s doing something. That is one of the policies that we had been urging, that the partners should follow the money and should apply laws in their countries.”
Clesca said it came as a shock to learn that the sanctions have not produced any real action.
“I am surprised because Canada is a state and a country that has a functioning government. Canada has made a big deal about those sanctions,” she said.
“When I say it has made a big deal about it, we have the Minister Joly who has talked about it, Prime Minister Trudeau has talked about it and the ambassador has talked about it.”
‘They are pariahs’
Even though the government has not seized or frozen any assets belonging to the 15 men targeted for sanctions, Joly’s department says the sanctions still have had an effect.
“Sanctioned individuals are subject to dealings bans,” said Global Affairs spokesperson Adrien Blanchard.
“As a result, listed individuals cannot access Canada’s financial system and businesses, they can’t conduct financial activities or transactions in Canada or with Canadians. Doing so is a criminal offence. This creates a massive opportunity cost for individuals listed who might otherwise have engaged in business dealings.
“In other words, sanctioned individuals are not going to be able to do anything with Canada. They are pariahs. And when we impose sanctions in coordination with our allies — as we have done with the United States — these individuals have practically nowhere left to go.”
Clesca agreed that the sanctions have hurt the reputations of the politicians affected.
“There is the moral value of the sanction, which is that society has its norms and the word ‘sanction’ itself is not a pleasant or welcome word,” she told CBC News. “They have families, children, etcetera. So there is a shame, I think, that comes with it.”
Naming and shaming
Recent developments suggest at least some of those 15 individuals are chafing under the sanctions. Former Haitian PM Laurent Lamothe has threatened legal action against the government of Canada. This week, former PM Jean-Henry Ceant wrote to the secretary-general of the United Nations to protest Canada’s sanctions; he said he’s retained a Canadian law firm to represent him.
Clesca said the “shame” may even be putting a crimp in 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 a thinking of preparing their campaigns for whenever there are elections,” said Clesca. “Some of them used to speak quite loudly. And some of them, since being sanctioned, have stopped speaking publicly.”
Financial institutions — always reluctant to fall afoul of foreign governments, especially the U.S. — can also refuse to do business with sanctioned individuals.
“This impedes them from supporting corruption and the illegal activities of armed gangs,” said Blanchard. “This is having a real impact on the ground. Haiti’s newspaper of record, Le Nouvelliste, characterized the sanctions as causing ‘a political earthquake.'”
(Le Nouvelliste did use that term — in November, when the sanctions were new and their practical application was unknown.)
A mansion in Laval
But while they’ve welcomed Canada’s sanctions as better than nothing, many Haitians had hoped to see those who enriched themselves at their expense compelled to pay up.
“Sanctions are kind of like a smokescreen to justify that, yes, Canada is taking a leadership role,” said Haitian-Canadian activist Frantz Andre, a member of Solidarité Québec-Haïti. He first brought to light the 2020 purchase of an extravagant villa in Laval-sur-le-lac, Que., by now-sanctioned Haitian senator Rony Celestin.
Celestin’s wife Marie Louisa Aubin Celestin is one of five Haitian consuls in Montreal; her name went on the deed for the cash purchase of the $4.25-million home in December 2020. Five months later, she shared the title to the house with her husband.
The transaction led to an investigation by Haiti’s anti-corruption body, the Unité de Lutte contre la Corruption (ULCC).
“We heard of that investigation,” said Andre. “But so far, we’re talking about more than two years and we still don’t know what that investigation is doing.”
The ULCC, like much of Haiti’s government, ceased to operate normally as the country slipped into chaos. Its director Claudy Gassant was found dead in the Dominican Republic in 2021.
Fellow Haitian senator Willot Joseph accused Celestin last June of ordering Gassant’s murder. Celestin denied the allegation and Dominican police ruled the death a suicide.
‘Seize the assets’
Celestin has argued that the source of his wealth is his business interests in PetroGaz Haiti — a company with a website that describes major global operations, including hundreds of oil rigs and dozens of refineries. But a search by CBC News found no evidence of any such large-scale business.
The U.S. Treasury Department says the real source of Celestin’s wealth is drug trafficking. Brian E. Nelson, under-secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, last month described Celestin and another Haitian senator as “corrupt Haitian politicians abusing their power to further drug trafficking activities across the region.”
The Treasury Department accuses Celestin of trafficking drugs from Venezuela into Haiti and then on to the U.S. and the Bahamas.
Andre said the Celestin mansion in Laval is an obvious example of a corruptly-acquired asset and the government of Canada should have moved against it as soon as the sanctions took effect.
“Canada has to show they have taken action,” he said. “Seize the assets, say how much the assets are worth and send it back to legitimate Haitians in Haiti.”
Clesca said the Quebec villa has become a well-known symbol of corruption in Haiti.
“it is an emblematic case and the most obvious one, so I think it behooves Canada to explain why it is that it hasn’t moved forward with this case in particular, as well as all the others,” she said.
“I’m very surprised that, in a case like this, that nothing has come of it.”