By: Craig Colburn, Co-Founder & COO at FocusPoint International
While calm has now returned to Haiti after the government’s reversal of a sharp hike in fuel prices that triggered three days of violent civil unrest, the country remains on standby as President Jovenel Moïse prepares to choose a new prime minister to implement a revised fiscal policy in agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Despite the demonstrations, roadblocks, and violence that occurred across Port-au-Prince and throughout the country during the weekend of July 6-8, the IMF insists that Haitian officials re-introduce economic measures that would involve an increase in fuel prices, albeit in stages. A more gradual approach to fuel hikes would still go along with the IMF’s Staff Monitored Program, which requires Haiti’s fiscal policy to ‘focus on mobilizing domestic revenue to make room for needed increases in public investment, including investments in health, education, and social services’. Earlier this year, the Haitian government signed a six-month finance agreement with the IMF that would have given the country access to $96 million in low-interest loans and grants from the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the European Union. Among the steps to be taken as part of the deal was the removal of fuel and electricity subsidies that account for approximately one-half of Haiti’s annual fiscal deficit, reportedly costing the country close to $160 million a year in uncollected revenue. The country’s economy now faces double-digit inflation, a depreciating currency, and slow growth, with a budget deficit of more than $150 million.
The change in government and the successive institution of IMF-supported economic reforms could open yet another new chapter of political uncertainty for Haiti. Several people were killed, businesses were burned and looted, and tourists were stranded in the eruption of violence that followed the government’s initial announcement on July 6 of a reduction in fuel subsidies, which resulted in temporary fuel price increases ranging from 38 percent for gasoline to 51 percent for kerosene. Although the government was forced to cancel the fuel hikes less than 24 hours later, widespread violence continued for more than two days. The unrest led to the subsequent resignation of then-Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant as well as 18 members of his cabinet on July 14. However, public denouncement of the initial decision to raise fuel prices continues to resonate. Haitians have also demanded the resignation of President Moïse, who has been a target of recent public anger.
Further backlash in Haiti could not have come as a surprise, as plans by the incoming government are to implement revised IMF-backed fiscal reforms and may nevertheless ignore the extent of the country’s political and social fragility. The new government will inherit a country not only with a crushing deficit and debt, but also one in which an estimated sixty percent of the population falls below the poverty line, with 24 percent living in extreme poverty. Moreover, the implementation of a revised reform plan that includes the gradual lowering of fuel subsidies along with compensatory and mitigating measures aimed at protecting the most vulnerable may not be politically viable or sustainable considering the multifaceted dilemma within the country.
Renowned for decades of political turmoil, Haiti is distinct among countries of the Caribbean for its relative lack of tourism and scarcity of foreign investment. In fact, few counties have struggled with development like Haiti. Notwithstanding billions of dollars in charity received and the world’s second-highest per capita concentration of NGOs, Haiti remains the poorest county in the Western Hemisphere. In recent years, crime, natural disasters, disease, and mismanagement of humanitarian relief have combined with political instability to make the country highly prone to civil unrest. Corruption remains a serious problem in Haiti.
The country currently has some of the highest recorded levels of crime since the 2004 coup d’état. Violent crime, such as armed robbery and assault, is prevalent throughout the country, especially in Port-au-Prince. Other frequently reported crimes include carjacking, shootings, thefts, and homicides. The kidnapping of wealthy Haitians, international executives, and aid workers are also common.
Haiti’s geographical location, as well as its politically volatile situation, high levels of crime, extreme poverty, and poor infrastructure, render the country extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Throughout its history, Haiti has suffered strong storms, catastrophic earthquakes, and periodic droughts. Situated in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane belt, Haiti is normally subject to severe storms in the Caribbean from June to October every year. Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in Haiti in October 2016, left much of the southern and western parts of the country devastated. Those areas are still recovering, and access to clean water and food supplies is still a challenge. With Haiti encompassing the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola, the country also lies between two major seismic fault zones. As such, the country is susceptible to occasional earthquakes and potential tsunamis. On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince and ravaged most of the country. The Haitian government estimated the death toll to be as high as 300,000, with more than 1.5 million people displaced. The devastation caused by the earthquake was approximated to be 120 percent of the nation’s GDP.
In addition, unsanitary environmental conditions, which were exacerbated following Haiti’s recent natural disasters, pose an increased risk for the spread of infectious diseases in the country. Malaria, dengue, Chikungunya, Cholera, and Zika are known to be prevalent in Haiti.
Haiti is generally a high-risk travel destination, and potential visitors should reconsider travel to the country due to crime, civil unrest, poor infrastructure, and environmental hazards. If traveling to Haiti, visitors are advised to exercise a high degree of caution. While most visitors to Haiti will likely never feel as though they are in imminent danger, heightened precautions should be taken by travelers to help ensure their safety in the country. It is first and foremost advised that travelers use common-sense security measures and stay alert and aware of their surroundings. However, it is also recommended that visitors make adequate security arrangements in advance to avoid traveling alone in the country. The presence of a professional security detail or one or more vetted traveling companions with reliable local knowledge can help alleviate risk. As the security situation in Haiti is highly unpredictable, travelers should be vigilant at all times, particularly in the capital of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding vicinity, and have a contingency plan for emergency situations.
Businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations that currently operate or plan to operate in a high-risk environment such as Haiti should consider the number of unique security challenges in the country, which is comprised of a variety of threats that typically do not need to be addressed in more developed parts of the world. In other words, from an organizational perspective, decision-makers and managers should adopt an all-encompassing approach when addressing travel security/emergency planning for Haiti. Understanding the extent of the risks involved when traveling to Haiti and identifying appropriate mitigation tactics, organizations will tend to be more successful conducting operations in the country.
Liaising with a travel risk management and specialty risk consulting firm such as FocusPoint International can help build mutually beneficial relationships with security professionals, NGOs, and local contacts that will work to not only help an organization mitigate risk, but also effectively respond when faced with a crisis or emergency situation. FocusPoint adds value by helping organizations develop policies and procedures that promote resiliency, establish business continuity, and ensure requirements are met regardless of location.