U.S. sanctions more Haitians, including the relatives of people accused of corruption

A former director of Haiti’s customs administration and an “immediate” family member are being sanctioned by the U.S. State Department along with relatives of a current member of the Haitian Senate.

The State Department announced Friday that the former director of Haiti’s customs administration, Romel Bell, and “one immediate family member” are being designated because of Bell’s abuse of his public position “by participating in corrupt activity that undermined the integrity of Haiti’s government.”

Also designated are Sen. Rony Célestin, for the same reasons, and four immediate relatives of his. Last week, the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Célestin, accusing him of abusing his power as a politician to further drug trafficking activities across the region. The U.S. sanctions came after the Canadian government had done the same.

In addition to his post as the representative for Haiti’s Central Plateau in the country’s dysfunctional Senate, Célestin, 48, is a businessman and a leading importer of building materials. His business dealings and exponential wealth have long put him in the crosshairs of U.S. investigators, while his purchase of a $4.25 million luxury villa in Canada’s Laval community with his wife, a member of the country’s diplomatic corps, raised suspicion in that country and triggered an investigation.

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Adams M. Smith, a former senior adviser to the director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Obama administration, said the aggressive ways in which the U.S. and Canada are going after Haitians are indications of a foreign policy shift.

“Sanctions are an expression of foreign policy,” said Smith, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “Recent interest in what is going on in Haiti have given rise to Haiti now being a much more prominent part of our policy discussion in the United States; concerns about the instability in Haiti, potentially bleeding over in the Dominican Republic and maybe even further... into the U.S., Mexico, the wider Caribbean. It’s a function of a foreign policy discussion having re-centered now.”

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince noted that the State Department’s measures against Bell and Célestin were made on International Anti-Corruption Day and on the eve of International Human Rights Day. These actions include financial penalties and visa restrictions. The State Department did not provide names of the relatives of either Bell or Célestin.

Both men have long been under scrutiny over corruption allegations at Haiti’s port operations and customs.

Bell was named director of the customs administration in September 2018 by President Jovenel Moïse. Earlier this year, Bell was targeted by Haiti’s anti-corruption unit, which launched an investigation into accusations of corruption and illegal arms trafficking. Though Bell strongly denied involvement in any corruption, investigators and police on May 20 raided the central office of the General Administration of Customs and prohibited access. However, after the customs unit threatened to shut down operations with a strike, the anti-corruption unit was forced to remove its seal four days later.

Still, members of the foreign diplomatic corps insisted on Bell’s firing, citing concerns about increased arms trafficking and the loss of an estimated $600 million annually in uncollected customs duties. Their pressure eventually led interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry to name a new customs director, after which Haiti made several significant seizures of arms and ammunition at two ports.

But the decision didn’t come without fallout. After Henry announced in mid-September an increase in fuel prices at the pump, individuals upset about the customs crackdown were accused of using anti-government protests and demonstrations to their advantage by sowing further chaos.

The new sanctions are part of a foreign policy shift in which both the U.S. and Canada have been going after Haitian nationals they believe are either linked to gangs or involved in corruption. Canada has so far sanctioned 11 individuals, including three of the wealthiest members of the country’s private sector.

The U.S. has yet to sanction anyone in Haiti’s private sector, which has left it open to criticism that it is only targeting Haitian politicians. On Thursday, representatives of the business community, including the chambers of commerce throughout the country, issued a statement promising, among other things, to reform international business practices, pay their taxes and cooperate to develop a political, humanitarian and economic road map toward a new Haiti.

In response to the announcement, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Brian A. Nichols tweeted: “We welcome the Haitian private sector’s broad-based appeal for real change in business practices — promoting transparency, competing constructively, and respecting ethical and legal standards. We will be watching closely to ensure these measures are upheld in practice.”