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Seventh person dies as Haiti protests enter second week

A protester jumps over a burning barricade during a protest against the government in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti
A protester jumps over a burning barricade during a protest against the government in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti REUTERS/Jeanty Junior Augustin

Violent clashes between police and demonstrators have continued into Wednesday in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, with a young man killed near the presidential palace. At least seven people have now been killed since the protests began on 7 February, calling for President Jovenel Moise to leave. 

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A Haitian journalist was also wounded in Port-au-Prince in an exchange of gunfire between protesters and police.

The people are demanding food, fair prices and an end to corruption.

The demonstrations are a first, according to Frantz Duval, the editor-in-chief of Le Nouvelliste daily from the capital Port-au-Prince.

"It is the first time that protests in Haiti have gone uninterrupted for several consecutive days," he says. "No banks, businesses or any public institutions have been able to operate normally as they had to close down only a few hours after opening. Nothing seems to indicate that the protests will stop because there is always a neighbourhood flaring up."

At least seven people have died and dozens have been injured as the protests turned violent in the Caribbean’s poorest country. Looting, makeshift barricades, burning tyres are common occurrences in the big cities.

The demonstrations begun on 7 February following a call by the opposition, reacting to a court report which alleged that officials and former government ministers had reportedly misappropriated two billions of dollars in loans made to Haiti by Venezuela after 2008.

The loans were made through what is known as the PetroCaribe funds under which Venezuela supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms for years.

The report also named a company that was then headed by Moise as a beneficiary of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.

Not just corruption

There is more to the popular uprising in Haiti than just the PetroCaribe scandal.

The current unrest has been building for months with violent demonstrations flaring up in July and October last year. The people are angry over a plummeting currency, prices flaring up, rising cost of living, lack of basic facilities.

“It reached a point that it was going to explode anyway because people have no food to eat, they cannot feed their family”, says Barthelemy Jolly, talk show host and a founder of Radio Gonbo Kreyol, a Haitian community radio in New Orleans.

The violence is an expression of years of frustrations, according to Jean-Hector Philippe, an adviser on environmental issues to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide between 2002 and 2004.

“The Haitian population is very patient," he says. "They have been suffering for a long, long time. But today enough is enough. People are fighting for their daily life. People are fighting for healthcare. People are fighting for better conditions of living.

"And, more importantly, people are fighting for their dignity. In this country, there is no justice. And people are fed up now.”

Who has to gain?

Philippe believes that there are other parties riding on the popular uprising to serve their own vested interests.

“Both the opposition and the local oligarchy are fighting to preserve their privileges. There are five to seven families who have been ruling over Haiti since independence in 1804. They have power because they have a lot of money. And they have the support of the United States and other western countries,” says Philippe.

For Jolly, both “the United States and the French government are partly responsible for what is happening today.”

He blames France for Haiti’s lack of resources to invest in its own development. Haiti – the first black republic – had to service a debt to France for 122 years (from 1825 to 1947) because it overthrew the French and gained independence in 1804.

France then demanded reparations to compensate the loss of slaves and land, also to recognise Haiti as a sovereign state, without which it would be cut off from world trade. The reparations to the tune of 150 million gold francs (nearly 20 billion euros), later reduced to 60 million gold francs, heavily indebted the impoverished country.

Jolly also believes that the people involved in the oil corruption case are hoping that the current protests and instability will shift the problem and eventually "make PetroCaribe go away".

“It is in the interest of some people that Haiti remains unstable,” says Jolly, as it means no rule of law, no accountability and a free rein to do as they please.

Frantz Duval thinks that local politicians are hoping to cash in on the current unrest:

“The current instability is to the benefit of the opposition parties as well as the party that supported President Moise (PHTK – "Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale") which has kept very quiet about the current situation. If they want to go to the next elections, it is in their interest not to be associated with Jovenel Moise.

“He made a lot of promises which he has not been able to fulfill because he doesn’t have the financial means to do so.

“The PetroCaribe funds have been spent by the former governments between 2008 and 2016 and Moise has had to lead a government crippled with debts.”

No reaction from the government

The opposition is accusing the President and his government of remaining silent while the country is in turmoil. However, President Moise did call for dialogue on 8 February, the day after the demonstrations started.

But the opposition immediately rejected it.

“It was on the sidelines of a meeting the President held with rice importers,” explains Duval. “And he was replying to a journalist’s question. Since then, the President and his government have made no comments about the protests and the fact that Port-au-Prince and the main cities have been locked down.”

Several organisations and countries have called for all parties to engage in “constructive dialogue”, including the Haitian private association, CARICOM (Caribbean Community), the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the United States, Canada, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain.

The problem is that the opposition is demanding the resignation of President Moise and made it a prerequisite to enter into dialogue. Even though Moise is willing to engage in talks, he always said he will not step down. Hence a political impasse with talks that were due on 22 January and 7 February [but] never took place.

Jean-Hector Philippe doesn’t believe that the departure of Moise will change anything.

“Changing the head of state without implementing any structural reforms will make no difference as we won’t be addressing the root cause of the problems,” he declares.

Jolly adds that there is no clear plan if Moise eventually leaves the government:

“Do they know what they are going to do after they take Moise out of power? Nobody has got a plan. How are they going to get food on the table? This is the problem.”

No control

Duval fears that the government does not have the capacity to control the unrest:

“The police force is overwhelmed as they are on high alert since the protests started. The government doesn’t have the means to contain a town of 4 million inhabitants if there is a rebellion. We have no army and the police has no means.”

Philippe fears that the protests will not calm down while Moise remains in power as “there are people instigating the violence, armed people, gangs... Everything is in place for violent confrontations”.

Jolly says that it is easy to manipulate a hungry mob:

“When people have no food to eat, it is easy to get them to do anything. If you tell them you are on their side, they will not question your motivations. When you’re hungry, you cannot think right.”

However grim the prospect may be, Jean-Hector Philippe still has faith in the people of Haiti

“Haitians are becoming violent because they are fed up with what is happening to them.

 

Follow Frantz Duval on Twitter @frantzduval

Follow Barthelemy Jolly on Facebook

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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