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No word from Haiti's president as fear paralyzes capital

A masked demonstrator gestures before burning tires during protests in Port-au-Prince, on February 10, 2019
A masked demonstrator gestures before burning tires during protests in Port-au-Prince, on February 10, 2019 AFP
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Port-au-Prince (AFP)

Sporadic gunfire echoed through the deserted streets of Port-au-Prince Monday as the government remained silent in the face of protests that have paralyzed the Haitian capital and triggered rising violence.

The normally traffic-clogged streets were empty as schools, shops and municipal offices were shuttered for fear of more violence that has already left several people dead and an air uncertainty hanging over the government of President Jovenel Moise.

Barricades have sprung up in some areas of the capital and other cities, as protesters have taken to the streets demanding the president step down over reports of mismanagement and possible embezzlement of development funds in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Since the opposition organized widespread demonstrations last week to mark two years of Moise's presidency, smaller and more spontaneous protests have broken out in key urban centers.

In some places, young men have erected barricades and begun seizing bypassers to hold to ransom, while vehicles have been torched, and shops damaged and looted, creating a climate of fear and intimidation alongside the opposition protests.

Demonstrators are demanding Moise quits over a scandal centering on the Petrocaribe fund, 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.

Investigations have shown that nearly $2 billion from the program were misused.

A report released in January on the misuse of the money 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.

During his election campaign, Moise promised "food on every plate and money in every pocket," yet most Haitians still struggle to make ends meet and face inflation that has risen 15 percent since his election.

- 'A danger and a threat' -

"We call on the police to arrest Jovenel Moise because he represents a danger and a threat to the life of every Haitian," said Andre Michel, one of the main opposition leaders.

"He no longer has any legitimacy: the country will remain deadlocked until Jovenel Moise resigns," he said.

A mediation group composed of a senior UN official, the ambassadors of France, Germany, Brazil, Canada and the United States, and representatives of Spain, the EU and the Organization of American States, has called on Haiti's politicians to enter dialogue over the crisis, lamenting the loss of life and damage caused by the protests.

Yet the administration has remained mute in the face of rising unrest over the past five days, with only Eddy Jackson Alexix, the secretary of state for communication, issuing a brief statement Monday on Twitter.

"The government recognizes the right of every person to demonstrate and exercise their rights according to the law, but looting shops, blocking streets, burning tires, smashing car windows or throwing oil on the road do not fall into that category," he said.

While the government has offered no response to the demands of demonstrators, opposition groups have also failed to spell out any concrete solution to the crisis, beyond calling for the president to step aside.

"We are facing the biggest crisis since 2008," said Haitian economist Etzer Emile, recalling riots that rocked the country a decade ago.

After racking up a record budget deficit of 24 billion gourdes ($306 million) in 2018, the government can no longer fund social welfare programs without slashing spending.

"There is no magic wand, but if we do not close the valve on government spending, we won't be going anywhere," said Emile

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