Protests erupt in Haiti over sharp rise in fuel prices
SUNDAY UPDATE: American Airlines says it has canceled three out of seven flights to Port-au-Prince. The first flight is scheduled to depart MIA at 10:49 a.m. Sunday and arrive Port-au-Prince at 1 p.m. That flight will then depart Port-au-Prince at 2:01 p.m. and arrive back in MIA at 4:21 p.m. The one daily flight to Cap-Haïtien is still scheduled on-time: departs MIA at 10:35 a.m. and arrives Cap-Haïtien at 12:32 p.m. It then departs Cap-Haïtien at 1:27 p.m., arriving MIA at 3:33 p.m.
The U.S. airlines canceled all of their flights to Haiti Saturday as the country’s embattled prime minister called for Haitians to stop blocking roads and burning tires amid a civil unrest being triggered by the announcement of a sharp hike in fuel prices. Flights remain canceled until further notice despite Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant's announcement that the price adjustment was being temporarily suspended.
At least three people have died as a result of the violence that erupted Friday afternoon, including a police officer and security guard for a former legislative candidate and opposition leader. Also, two police stations — one in the city of Gonaives and the other in Carrefour on the outskirts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince — were set ablaze. Gunshots were fired during demonstrations in the capital city as well as the town of Cavaillon.
Spirit Airlines and JetBlue, which diverted its 1709 flight to Santo Domingo and then returned to Fort Lauderdale Friday night "due to the civil unrest," all announced flight cancellations Saturday to Port-au-Prince. The JetBlue flight was about 300 feet from the ground when it was diverted, said a passenger.
"Due to concerns over safety from unrest in the area, Spirit Airlines felt it necessary to temporarily suspend service to Port-au-Prince, Haiti," said spokesman Derek Dombrowski. "We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused, but the safety of our Guests and Crew is paramount. "
American Airlines canceled all of its flights including the one to Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti, spokeswoman Martha Pantin said.
“Anybody’s going to Haiti? All flights are canceled,” a Broward County Sheriff deputy at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport yelled as he walked near the Transportation Security Administration check-in line.
Spirit Airlines announced Saturday that it had cancelled Sunday's flights into Haiti. As of late Saturday, it remained unclear if other international flights will resume on Sunday.
Check the status of flights to Haiti here.
The attacks, which appear to have overwhelmed a poorly-resourced Haiti National Police force that for the first time does not have the backing of a U.N. peacekeeping force, continued with fury Saturday with helpless residents and tourists watching as angry crowds attacked luxury hotels and the businesses owned by high-profile Haitians while demanding that President Jovenel Moïse pull back the gas hikes or resign.
The call for a rollback was echoed by Lower Chamber President Gary Bodeau, who tweeted that he was giving "Guy Lafontant and the government two hours to turn back" its decision.
Near the Toussaint Louverture International Airport a fiery barricade blocked parts of the road while an angry mob broke the front door of the Best Western hotel in Petionville with rocks. Outside, seven cars were set on fire. As black smoke billowed in the air, firefighters were no where to be found and the crowd of more than 300 men, holding machetes and batons, threatened more chaos. Elsewhere around the capital, businesses were pelted with rocks. Some were vandalized and looted.
"Every time you do it, the country becomes poorer," Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant said in a televised address early Saturday morning as he appealed for calm and patience from the population. "Every time you destroy a store, it's jobs that a Haitian will lose.
"I'm asking you for patience because the administration's vision is clear," he said referring to him and President Jovenel Moïse who has been in office 17 months. "It has a clear program that it has continued to execute."
Describing the government's plans to bring 2,485 miles of roads and 24-hour electricity to the country, Lafontant sounded more like a politician still on the campaign trail than one with a grip on the deepening crisis.
But as the crisis deepened Saturday, many wondered how long Lafontant had left in office. A vote of no-confidence on his government had been put on hold late last month amid questions about the legality of four of ministers who were appointed in a recent cabinet shake up.
Haitians trapped in the unrest describe it as spontaneous and symptomatic of a much deeper anger in the population with the increase in fuel prices being the last straw.
"Gas prices going up is not good for us and it's not good for you," one young man told a Haitian-American couple as they tried to negotiate their way through one of many road blocks in southern Haiti, trying to get to the outskirts of the town of Cavaillon.
On Friday, the Haitian government announced that fuel prices would be rising as of midnight. The increases were set at 38 percent for gasoline, 47 percent for diesel and 51 percent for kerosene, the country’s Commerce and Economic Ministry said in a joint statement.
The Ministry of Social Affairs also announced new fares for public transportation, with some routes now going up as much as 50 percent.
While the price hikes would have affected everyone from the struggling construction company owner whose weekly diesel costs will now up go from $1,310 to $2,034 for 500 gallons, to the school teacher who will see her grocery bill increase, the poor is especially affected.
Since 2010, Haiti has lost nearly $770,750,000 in revenues by keeping gas prices low, government officials say.
"Only 25 percent of the population has benefited from the subsidization," Haiti's Finance Minister Jude Alix Patrick Solomon said Friday at a press conference about the fuel hikes. "It's difficult for you to be asking your international partners to give you budgetary assistance or support and at the same time you have revenue that you are not capturing."
The fuel hikes were part of an agreement that Haiti entered into with the International Monetary Fund. It has called on Haiti to make sweeping reforms in its public administration and raise gas prices in accordance with its 1995 law that calls for prices to be adjusted with every shipment. Failing to do the reforms can cost Haiti up to $96 million in budgetary support from international donors.
A graphic of the hikes went viral shortly after 2 p.m. Friday as Haitians were watching Brazil lose to Belgium during the World Cup. Right after the game ended, the violence erupted with crowds in several major cities setting up fiery barricades with tires cutting off major roads. A lot of people got trapped in offices, in restaurants, hotel lobbies and on the streets. They either had to abandoned their car and walk home or take refuge at a hotel or friend's house.
In Petionville, roads leading to wealthier hillside communities were targeted. Cars were pelted with rocks as residents attempted to make their way home. Protesters even cut off a detour to Montagne Noire that had become popular in recent days after upset residents in the Pelerin 5 community started protesting the demolition of several houses in the vicinity of the president's private residence days earlier.
The government claims the houses were the private property of the state, and they had to be demolished for security purposes. But residents objected saying they have had no due process.
In response to the violence, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince warned U.S. citizens to avoid certain area and at the height of the violence on Friday issued a shelter in place order to embassy employees.