Unrest over fuel prices sparks political crisis in Haiti

Hector Retamal, AFP | Burned-out cars are seen near a market in Delmas, a commune of Port-au-Prince, on July 8.

Deadly protests forced Haiti’s government to halt plans to raise fuel prices over the weekend. But despite the reversal, protesters have called for a two-day general strike starting Monday and are demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise.


The government’s plans ignited a powder keg of long-simmering resentments. Within hours of its July 6 announcement that gasoline prices would rise by 38 percent, diesel by 47 percent and kerosene by 51 percent starting almost immediately, mass protests had erupted that eventually left at least four dead, including the bodyguard of an opposition politician.

Burning tyres blocked major roads into the capital Port au Prince while groups of armed men took control of several intersections, trying to extort money from drivers and pedestrians. Rioters targeted shops and hotels in some of the capital’s wealthier districts and airlines briefly cancelled all flights to the main island, where burned-out cars littered the streets.

By early Monday calm had mostly returned to the capital. Amélie Baron, a journalist at FRANCE 24 sister station RFI based in Port au Prince, said on Twitter that most of the barricades had been cleared from the roads but fewer people than usual were out and about while in some places tyres continued to burn.

Much of the weekend anger stemmed from the country’s longtime struggles with widespread poverty and economic stagnation. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas, with almost 60 percent of the population living below the national poverty line and 24 percent below the extreme poverty line, the World Bank said in April.

In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused damage equal to 32 percent of Haiti’s GDP, affecting a third of hospitals, destroying more than 500 schools and causing long-term losses to key sectors including agriculture and fishing. It was the country’s most devastating disaster since the 2010 earthquake that killed at least 220,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless; almost 40,000 are still living in makeshift camps.

After concluding a mission to Haiti last week, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator and under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that while Haitians had shown “remarkable resilience” in the face of successive natural disasters, the country still needed significant help from the international community.

“[A] very sizable number of Haitians still require assistance – not only to obtain life’s necessities, but also to build livelihoods and become more resilient to future threats,” said Lowcock.

The decision to raise fuel prices was part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has called on Haiti to increase government revenue, improve services and boost the economy. A framework IMF deal that Haiti signed in February included provisions for bringing an end to expensive government subsidies for petroleum products.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant said over the weekend that Haiti needs to raise fuel prices to balance the budget. The subsidies have cost $1 billion between 2010 and 2018, funds that "could have allowed us to build many kilometres of highway ... many classrooms ... many health clinics", he said.


The violence sparked a political crisis, with the leader of Haiti's lower house of parliament announcing a deadline and threatening a takeover if the price increases were not abandoned.

"If there is no response within two hours, the government will be considered as having resigned" and the legislature will take over, said Gary Bodeau, the head of the Chamber of Deputies, in comments to AFP on Saturday.

In a bid to quell the unrest, Prime Minister Lafontant took to Twitter on Saturday to announce that the price rises had been suspended.

In an address on state television later on Saturday,President Moise said he had "corrected what had to be corrected" and appealed for calm.

"As soon as you speak, I listen. Because you started sending me this message last night, I received it and corrected what had to be corrected.”

"To those watching me tonight, I ask you all: Go home," he said.

But many were not satisfied with the moves, and looting and pillaging continued through Sunday. Some insisted that Moise’s resignation was the only solution.

"If the president stays one more day, the game will take on a new appearance: We will cut off the roads and burn everything, because we have nothing to lose," one masked protester told AFP.

Police Director-General Michel-Ange Gedeon ordered his officers to crack down on what he called "bandits who disturb the peace and security of the country".

"We understand your right to protest," said Gedeon. "But we do not understand the violence."

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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