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Dirty Money

The Billionaire Oligarch Who’s Enabling Haiti’s Murderous Gangs

Businessman Gilbert Bigio is facing penalties for his alleged involvement with the violence that’s engulfed the country during Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s corrupt reign.

Richard Pierrin/Getty Images
Demonstrators carry a coffin covered with American, Canadian, and French flags and pictures of politicians as they protest the corrupt and violent regime of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

In a stunning new development amid the smoldering crisis in Haiti, Canada has imposed stiff economic sanctions on Gilbert Bigio, who is often described as the richest man in Haiti. The Canadian foreign ministry accused Bigio, along with two other superwealthy Haitians, of using their economic power “to protect and enable the illegal activities of the armed criminal gangs” that are tearing the country apart. For years, Haitians have said Bigio and other oligarchs are complicit in the violence strangling the nation: This year 1,448 people have been killed, with another 1,005 kidnapped for ransom. Until now, however, the international community has stayed mostly silent about Haiti’s corrupt elite.

Canada’s bold move should end the mistaken view in the outside world that the gang violence, which has brought 60 percent of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to a virtual standstill, is nothing but savagery contained in poor neighborhoods. As one local online publicationthe respected AyiboPost—explained, the Bigio family’s broad economic holdings include its own recently constructed private port of Lafito, just north of the capital. AyiboPost speculates that Canada may have information indicating that the gangs have been able to use the port to import some of the heavy weapons that are outgunning the beleaguered Haitian police.

The Bigio family is part of what is often called the “Syro-Lebanese elite”—the descendants of people who immigrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from various parts of the Middle East. There are estimates that Gilbert Bigio, the 86-year-old patriarch, is worth $1 billion, although no one knows for sure. It is a matter of public record that in 2020 he bought a Mercedes Maybach luxury auto for $132,000, quite a statement in a nation where an estimated 4.7 million people—nearly half the population—are experiencing “acute food insecurity.”

That many outside of Haiti are ignorant about these influential oligarchs is actually something of a surprise. Back in the early 1990s, after most of the wealthy supported the overthrow of the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, foreign diplomats, including a U.S. ambassador, called them “morally repugnant elites,” or MREs for short. The appellation was inspired by the emergency rations known as “meals ready-to-eat.”

Daniel Foote, the former U.S envoy to Haiti who resigned in September 2021 to protest against the disastrous American policy, told me that he thinks Canada and the U.S. State Department are working together to economically punish Bigio and the others. But he suspects that the United States cannot follow Canada’s example by imposing stiff sanctions, possibly because Bigio may be a U.S. citizen and thus entitled to due process. In theory, however, U.S. prosecutors could bring cases against Bigio and other oligarchs for funding the vicious gangs whether these defendants have U.S. citizenship or not. As things stand, inaction is much more likely.

Why do some members of Haiti’s elite pay and even arm the gangs? There are several explanations. In conversations with well-placed Haitians who understandably asked for anonymity, several theories emerged. All agreed that the gangs today are largely paramilitary allies of the PHTK, the political party that has dominated Haiti for the past decade with a combination of election fraud and violence. These oligarchs have a vested interest in maintaining this alliance. A large-shop owner explained that Haiti’s elite profits from monopolizing certain strategic importsthe Bigios control steeland so they cooperate with the ruling party to maintain that economic power.

All my anonymous informants agreed that Haiti’s rich evade their taxes, especially import duties. What’s more, Canada directly accused Gilbert Bigio and the two others of “money-laundering and other acts of corruption.” And one former government official told me that way back in the 1950s, the Bigios had imported Uzi submachine guns from Israel for the François “Papa Doc“ Duvalier dictatorship; the weapons trade may thus have already been a component of the family business model.

Ex-envoy Foote is somewhat skeptical about the Canadian-U.S. economic pressure. “I think they are acting for optics so it looks like they are actually doing something,” he said. “But what they should be doing right now is ending their support for Ariel Henry, the unelected, de facto prime minister, who is the biggest immediate obstacle to a solution.” Foote, like very many Haitians, endorses (with some reservations) the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, also known as the Montana Accord, the broad-based coalition that is calling for Henry to step down and give way to a provisional government that can restore order and then eventually prepare for new elections in two years.

But the Biden administration, Canada, and the United Nations have not given up on Ariel Henry. Foote, who knows the major players, cannot hide his astonishment: “The U.S., by continuing to recognize Henry, is implying that there are two camps in Haiti: his and the opposition. But in fact, he has no support: Haitians want him gone, and he may even be linked to the assassination in 2021 of President Jovenel Moïse.”

Meanwhile, the Montana Accord, which joins together more than 650 Haitian organizations and individuals, including labor unions, community groups, Catholic and Protestant churches, women’s groups, and chambers of commerce—all along with an inclusive range of political leanings—continues to demand that the U.S., Canada, and the U.N. set aside Ariel Henry and instead recognize a transitional government. Monique Clesca, a prominent member of the accord, testified on December 9 before a committee of Canada’s Parliament: “Today Haiti is a nation under siege, by heavily armed men. Worse: The [Ariel Henry] government, the politicians, and the economic sectors finance and arm these gangs.”

Clesca, who is a writer and an international development expert, went to lengths to make two important, linked points. First, she said, Henry is in power illegally and has no right to speak for Haiti and ask foreign powers to send troops. She called his request “a crime of high treason.” But second, she charged that Henry has made no genuine effort to bring the gangs under control. Instead, she says, his government has “crossed its arms.” Her view, shared by many Haitians, is that the de facto prime minister and his political and elite allies prefer the present violence, so they can summon an international armed force to maintain them in power despite their decade of corruption and mismanagement. It is reasonable to surmise that Henry and his allies are running a con job that until now has suckered the U.S. State Department and gone unreported in mainstream U.S. press accounts.

Clesca does not deny that Haiti is in crisis. “We are against intervention,” she told the Canadian members of Parliament. “But we do want the Haitian police reinforced, and we do need immediate humanitarian aid.” Haiti is currently struggling with a resurgence of cholera, which U.N. troops first brought to the country after the 2010 earthquake; 283 more Haitians have already died in the latest outbreak of a disease that is actually quite treatable.

A few days after her testimony, Clesca, like the rest of the Montana Group, in a November 30 statement, continued to reject foreign military intervention.* She told me, “We are a sovereign state. Nobody is calling for intervention in Ethiopia, or El Salvador, and they have huge problems.” She continued: “It is time for us Haitians to take responsibility for our state. Nothing says we can’t have assistance. Nothing says we can’t have cooperation. But we have to sit down together across a table and define our needs. It is time for us Haitians to assume responsibility for our people.”

* This article originally misidentified the date of the statement.