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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Battle for power in Haiti extends to lobbying in Washington

The Haitian government had been ramping up its spending on Washington lobbying in the months before the assassination of Moise.

By: New York Times | Washington |
July 22, 2021 9:35:50 am
HaitiA memorial to President Jovenel Moise at the Pantheon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (New York Times)

Written by Kenneth P. Vogel and Natalie Kitroeff

The struggle for power in Haiti after the assassination of the country’s president has spilled onto K Street, where rival Haitian politicians, business leaders and interest groups are turning to lobbyists to wage an expensive and escalating proxy battle for influence with the United States.

Documents, interviews and communications among Haitian politicians and officials show a scramble across a wide spectrum of Haitian interests to hire lobbyists and consultants in Washington and use those already on their payrolls in the hopes of winning American backing in a period of leadership turmoil in Haiti.

A group text chat in the days after the killing of President Jovenel Moïse that included Haitian officials, political figures and American lobbyists showed them strategizing about countering American critics and potential rivals for the presidency and looking for ways to cast blame for the killing, according to copies of the messages obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by some of the participants. The chat began before the assassination and originally included Moïse, though it appeared to take on a more frenetic tone after he was gunned down in his home this month.

The texts and other documents help bring to life how lobbyists from firms including Mercury Public Affairs — which was paid at least $285,000 in the second half of last year by the Haitian government — are working with allied politicians to position successors in the wake of the assassination.

In addition to Mercury, lobbying filings show that Haiti’s government is paying a total of $67,000 a month to three other lobbyists or their firms, some of which have retained additional lobbyists under subcontracts.

At the same time, competing political factions are looking for ways to develop backing in Washington for their own candidates. One former Haitian lawmaker had a series of discussions about hiring a lobbyist to push the United States to recognize Haiti’s Senate president as the country’s interim leader. A different would-be leader expanded the American political team he assembled to seek support in Congress and from wealthy donors for a possible presidential campaign.

Several other Haitian politicians and interest groups approached lobbyists, political consultants and fixers offering fees as high as $10 million or more for their help.

One prominent lobbyist, Robert Stryk, signed a contract in the days after the assassination to represent a prominent Haitian business interest.

Stryk — who has worked as a fixer of sorts for foreign clients from whom other lobbyists keep their distance, including targets of sanctions and criminal inquiries in Angola, the Democratic Republican of Congo and Venezuela — would not identify his client in Haiti. But he said he was helping the client attract private investment from the United States to Haiti in an effort to shape the debate about the country’s future.

“All of the various personalities are jockeying for position, in the hopes that the United States could elevate their stature in some way,” said Christopher Harvin, a former Bush administration official who works as a lobbyist and political consultant for clients around the world.

It is not clear yet how much effect the influence campaigns might have. But the lobbying push is the latest example of the scale and reach of Washington’s influence industry and its role in seeking to sway foreign policy. Especially in countries heavily reliant on the United States for financial aid and other backing, governments and deep-pocketed interests have long paid handsomely for help winning support in Washington — or at least the appearance of it — sometimes leading to criticism that they are more focused on currying favor in Washington than addressing problems at home.

The dynamic is stark in Haiti, where a quarter of the population is acutely hungry, despite billions in international assistance since an earthquake devastated the country in 2010.

The Haitian government had been ramping up its spending on Washington lobbying in the months before the assassination as Moïse faced mounting criticism over his efforts to write a new Constitution and hold elections while the country was convulsed by violence, with thousands of protesters demanding he leave office.

Haiti Claude Joseph was succeeded this week as Haiti’s prime minister by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician. (New York Times)

As members of Congress voiced criticism, a lobbyist for the Haitian government recommended in the group text chat days before the assassination that “we should make a formal request” for Haiti’s prime minister “to visit and meet with Blinken in DC,” referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The chaotic power struggle created by the killing of Moïse has only intensified the drive for US government support.

The United States initially recognized as Haiti’s interim leader Claude Joseph, Moïse’s prime minister, whose claim to leadership was being promoted by the country’s embassy in Washington and Mercury, its lead lobbying firm.

But the 10 remaining senators in Haiti challenged Joseph’s legitimacy almost immediately, saying they wanted to form a new government. They argued that Joseph had already been replaced as prime minister through the nomination of Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, and said that the head of the Senate, Joseph Lambert, should become president.

Last weekend, the United States switched its support to Henry from Joseph, who stepped down as prime minister on Monday and said he would become the foreign minister. The moves drew praise from the State Department, but criticism from Lambert.

Harvin said he had been approached by three prospective Haitian clients since the assassination but had not signed any of them. He said the mystery around the still-unsolved murder of Moïse heightened the risk around the lobbying derby.

“What happens if you spend six weeks positioning a candidate as credible, and then it turns out they had something to do with this?” Harvin said.

The text chat obtained by The Times provides insight into the ways in which various players in Haitian politics are thinking about influencing opinion in the United States.

One participant was Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister of Haiti, who had hired a public relations firm to promote a book he published last month that cast him as among the most effective Haitian leaders in recent years.

Another was Damian Merlo, a lobbyist and consultant who had worked on the presidential campaigns of both Moïse and his predecessor as president, Michel Martelly, who is seen as among those jockeying for control. Merlo had accompanied Martelly during a trip to Washington in late June to interview other lobbyists, and he also has a contract of $25,000 a month to lobby for the Haitian Embassy in Washington.

They were joined in the group chat by a pair of lobbyists from Mercury as well as an influential Haitian politician and the country’s ambassador to Washington.

Bocchit Edmond, the ambassador, sent a clip to the group chat of a video interview in which Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., was asked whether his opposition to the United States’ supporting Haitian armed forces may have contributed to the circumstances that caused the assassination.

“He deflected and was obviously caught off guard,” Edmond wrote. “We should really use this clip to show how much he is undermining the country’s security.”

Levin, who is co-chairman of the House Haiti Caucus, criticized the lobbying effort. “The funds of the Haitian government should be spent on lifting up the Haitian people and not arguing in Washington,” he said in an interview.

Stanley Lucas, a political operative who was a close ally of Moïse, wrote in the chat that an opposition political party, Inite, “seems to be the political arm of the assassination and the plot,” and called Lambert “the Coordinator of Inite” and Henry “a member of Inite.”

Lamothe appeared to pin the blame for the assassination on a handful of politicians and wealthy business owners, including Reginald Boulos, a doctor turned businessman who had been openly preparing for a presidential campaign of his own for months before the assassination.

Haiti The 10 remaining members of Haiti’s Senate said that Joseph Lambert, above, their leader, should become president. (New York Times)

In an interview, Lamothe said he “cannot go public and name anyone” as being behind the assassination and claimed his comments in the chat were being taken out of context. But neither he nor Reid responded to questions about the meeting or in the group chat. Lucas, who years ago was accused of undermining American policy in Haiti, said in text messages that he “firmly” stood by his comments and again pointed to what he characterized as possible links between the sitting prime minister, Henry, and the plot to assassinate the president.

Edmond, the Haitian ambassador, brushed aside questions about the efforts by Lamothe and Lucas to blame opposition politicians for the assassination.

“Everyone in the group is free to write something, to write their feelings,” he said in an interview. “As you see, I did not write it.”

He also defended his country’s lobbying spending and activity.

“Many countries are paying for lobbyists here in Washington. That’s the Washington culture,” he said.

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