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Haiti's 'Banana Man,' president under siege, frozen by crisis

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Port-au-Prince (AFP)

When he was campaigning as a virtual unknown, Haiti's President Jovenel Moise talked a lot about bringing work to the people and fighting corruption.

Now, with inflation on the rise and reports of corruption swirling, the former businessman known as "Banana Man" was expected to address the nation on Thursday -- after a week of Sphinx-like silence as protestors filled the streets calling for him to go.

Moise, a 50-year-old former entrepreneur who set up a string of businesses in the north of the country, where he hails from, burst on to the political stage two years ago with a populist message of building up the impoverished Caribbean nation.

His talk was backed up by his business background: past ventures included water treatment, the energy sector and agricultural production, the latter of which earned him his nickname, "Neg Bannan nan" or "The Banana Man" in Creole.

His business interests led him to a meeting in 2014 with the man who would become his political mentor, then- president Michel Martelly, a former singer who had once performed under the stage name Sweet Micky. He too had been a political newbie when he took the presidency in 2011.

"It was during an official trip that Martelly took to Germany with a delegation of businessmen," recalled Renald Luberice, who is currently the secretary general of Haiti's council of ministers.

"The representatives of the political class not being a force for change in this country, president Martelly perhaps wanted to propose something different, something revolutionary for Haiti," said Luberice, who said he had been impressed by Moise's presentation of his organic banana plantation to the Germans.

But the financing of the plantation, launched in 2014 and bolstered by a $6 million government loan a year later, has been dogged by questions, which the president's opponents are now using to stoke speculation about corruption.

In a report published last month, a court investigating mismanagement of a major development fund also found that Moise's Agritrans banana firm had been paid to upgrade a road, but that no contract had ever been located by the investigating judges.

"He was completely unknown to the general public, but the campaign of Jovenel Moise drew the attention of some because he had funding" said Marie-Yolene Gilles, director of a Haitian human rights organization.

"Unfortunately in Haiti, the fight against corruption is not center stage and there really aren't any investigations to determine where campaign contributions come from," she said.

- Populist pledges -

Moise campaigned on populist pledges, just like all candidates in Haiti do, but he kept up the rhetoric even after he was elected in February 2017.

Leaving his ministers behind, he criss-crossed the country to whip up support for his "caravan of change," including the purchase of heavy machinery and the launch of major works projects, whose exact costs have never been elaborated, despite repeated calls for clarity in the media.

While travelling the provinces, he also made big promises, such as providing the whole country with round-the-clock electricity.

"He leads like an amateur, piling up promises he can never keep, and the result is what we see today, a popular revolt," said Gilles.

So now, with at least seven dead and riots and gun fire rocking the capital, Moise has given up the big talk and fallen conspicuously silent.

Luberice said that was the president's prerogative. "If you read the Constitution, the president is not like a governor. He chooses when to speak," he said. "On the other hand, the government has to explain to the people what it is doing at all times."

The current head of the government, Jean-Henry Ceant, a two-time presidential candidate, was appointed last September, after his predecessor Jack Guy Lafontant as forced to step down.

Lafontant, a personal friend of Moise, was himself a newcomer to politics and quit in July after three days of riots triggered by a push by the government to increase fuel prices.

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