Haiti is on the brink, but for Digicel little will change

Impoverished nation is one of Denis O’Brien-controlled telco’s key markets

Haitian president Jovenel Moïse pictured at a military parade in Port au Prince, Haiti, in November 2019. Photograph: EPA

Haitian president Jovenel Moïse pictured at a military parade in Port au Prince, Haiti, in November 2019. Photograph: EPA

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The assassination in the early hours of Wednesday of Jovenel Moïse, the president of Haiti, underlines the depth of enduring political and social instability in what is one of the most important markets for Digicel, the Caribbean telecommunications company controlled by Denis O’Brien.

Moïse, whose rivals say should have handed over power earlier this year, was shot to death by an armed team in his home, while his wife was critically injured. The impoverished nation has been left teetering on the brink as a result.

Yet Haiti has long been a troubled nation, its political instability compounded by natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake that flattened its infrastructure, as well as a huge hurricane in 2016.

Investing in such a place would be off the agenda for most multinational companies. But for Digicel, Haiti has been a goldmine.

Ahead of Digicel’s aborted flotation in 2015, Haiti was responsible for more than 17 per cent of the group’s revenues, revenues which at the time totalled more than $2.8 billion. More than 5 million of its 13 million subscribers are Haitians.

O’Brien is far and away the country’s most important foreign investor. In addition to owning the company that controls more than 70 per cent of Haiti’s mobile market, his Digicel group also built the best hotel in the country to help it attract more foreign investors – a Marriott that opened in 2015.

The Digicel Foundation has built hundreds of schools in Haiti. O’Brien even roped in former US president Bill Clinton to lead a campaign to raise funds to rebuild the country after the 2010 earthquake.

Digicel’s prominence in the nation is reflected in its entanglement with the establishment there. In 2019, a group of Haitian emigrants to the US sued a number of politicians and businesses, including Digicel Haiti and Moïse, over an alleged corrupt scheme to divert telecoms taxes. The case against all the defendants was later thrown out by a New York judge.

The killing of Moïse is likely to ramp up the tension in Haiti as it faces into yet another period of political upheaval. For Digicel, however, things will remain much the same. Business is business, and will stay that way.

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