Protests erupt in Haiti over sharp rise in fuel prices
Haiti's government has suspended a fuel price hike that sparked two days of civil unrest and the cancellations of international flights by U.S. carriers to the island-nation.
Condemning the violence and destruction of businesses that occurred as a result of the announced hikes, Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant took to Twitter shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday to make the announcement.
"The government announces the suspension of the price adjustment measure for petroleum products until further notice," he tweeted.
Lafontant, a doctor who has never held public office until now, did not say what happens next. Neither did President Jovenel Moïse, who finally broke his silence in a 23-minute address to the population shortly after 9:30 p..m. on state-owned TNH.
"You are not happy about the removal of the subsidy for gas? Your president hears you," Moïse said about 20 minutes into his address, which focused heavily on his efforts to bring his campaign promises of roads and 24-hour electricity to fruition. "I took the decision since this afternoon [to remove the price hikes]. Enter your homes."
With his wife Martine sitting next to him, Moïse did not offer any concrete solution on how he plans to make up the revenue the increases in petroleum products were supposed to bring, or if and when he plans to bring them back. Instead, he spent the first eight minutes discussing the fact that in his 17 months in office he had virtually gotten "blood from stone," as he spread heavy equipment throughout the country to construct roads, dredge rivers and provide 24 hours electricity in far-off communiites.
He blamed the violence, which left cars in flames and businesses looted, on bad communication from his staff on the coming fuel hikes. He also seem to blame the population's reaction not on their raw anger over their increasingly desperate reality with no jobs and a higher cost of living, but on others trying to lead the population astray.
"Don't let anyone get you worked up," Moïse said. "This is not the image that we want to sell today. Look, flights have not arrived in the country since last night. Today, planes again didn't land. This is a big deal....These reactions are not good."
He noted that "a lot of destruction" had taken place in Haiti.
"The country doesn’t make cars; look at how many cars were destroyed. The country of Haiti doesn’t manufacture windows; look at how many windows were destroyed," he said.
Shortly after Moïse ended his speech, Spirit Airlines spokesman Derek Dombrowski said the airlines will once again cancel flights Sunday to Port-au-Prince, as well as to Cap-Haitien. It was still unclear whether American Airlines and JetBlue, which canceled flights Saturday, would resume normal operations Sunday.
Moïse had come under fire for not just his government's timing of the fuel hikes, but on his silence since angry crowds began blocking streets throughout the country with rocks and burning tires. Still, when he spoke, he seemed out of touch with the population and did not say whether the decision to temporarily suspend the price hikes will be revisited.
The International Monetary Fund has told Haitian officials that the fuel increases — along with other difficult measures, including a reform of the state-owned electricity company (EDH) — are necessary as part of the six-month, staff-monitored program the cash-strapped nation signed at the end of February.
Implementation of the reforms, which are due by the end of September, would give Moïse access to $96 million ($36 million from the European Union, $20 million from the World Bank and $40 million from the Inter-American Development Bank) in sorely needed donor support.
But Lafontant's announcement may be too little, too late.
"Lafontant has failed in his mission to govern efficiently," said lawmaker Jerry Tardieu, a member of the Lower Chamber of Deputies who represents Petionville. He called for the prime minister's immediate resignation.
A city in metropolitan Port-au-Prince, Petionville had at least two of its luxury hotels attacked and drivers were pelted with rocks as demonstrators reinstated fiery barricades Saturday and others fired gunshots.
"He has lost the trust of the population and no longer has the credibility to carry out any of the reforms needed in Haiti," Tardieu said.
Tardieu called on Lower Chamber President Gary Bodeau to reconvene their 117 members within the next 72 hours to resume a no-confidence vote on Lafontant and his government. The vote was put on hold late last month amid questions about the legality of four new ministers appointed during a cabinet shakeup. Sixty votes are needed to oust the government.
"I am confident that he will get a vote of no-confidence," Tardieu, an opposition lawmaker, said of Lafontant. "I don't see how any congressmen can raise their hand to agree to support such a government or a prime minister."
Since 2010, Haiti has lost more than $770 million in revenues by its refusal to abide by a 1995 decree calling for fuel prices to be adjusted with every shipment of fuel in the country. As a result, fuel has been considerably cheaper in the country than in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which adjusts its prices.
The announced fuel hikes, which took effect at midnight Friday before being temporarily suspended, called for a 38 percent increase for gas, 47 percent for diesel and 51 percent for kerosene. During the protests, Haitians also demanded the resignation of the president, who also has been the target of anger after the government tax office decided to demolish several houses without a court order near his private residence in the Pelerin 5 neighborhood, citing security concerns. In office for 17 months, Moïse has been unable to lift Haiti out of its deep economic morass despite a litany of promises.
"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," Haitian Finance Minister Jude Alix Patrick Solomon said Friday at a press conference announcing the hikes.
Lafontant's announcement came after two days of tire burnings, shooting and violent attacks. On Saturday, angry crowds attacked luxury hotels and looted businesses. Scared residents were trapped in homes, businesses and hotel lobbies.
As a result of the unrest fiber optic lines were damaged causing an known number of mobile customers in Haiti to be without Internet access or the ability to make international phone calls.
The State Department told U.S. citizens to take shelter in place and avoid large crowds and protests.
“We condemn all acts of violence,” a spokesperson said. “We encourage all parties in Haiti to exercise restraint and to respect the rule of law–without resorting to violence, or crimes against persons or property.”