Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant abruptly resigned Saturday, avoiding being forcibly ousted in a no-confidence vote by the country’s Lower Chamber of Deputies.
“Before coming here, I presented my resignation to the president of the republic,” Lafontant said about 10 minutes into his speech to the chamber in which he defended his tenure, shirked responsibility for the unrest and said Haitians today have a model in him.
Haiti’s parliament had scheduled a hearing on Saturday to fire Lafontant and his 18 cabinet members after an unpopular fuel price hike led to riots last weekend and the U.S. State Department issued a “Do not travel” Level 4 warning for the country.
A relatively unknown doctor until he was handpicked by President Jovenel Moïse 16 months ago, Lafontant temporarily suspended the fuel hike hours after it was enacted. But it did not immediately halt the violence. All week, he had refused calls to step down from business and opposition groups, which accused the government of mishandling the double-digit fuel increase that its ministers announced with little notice.
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The hike was part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which required Haiti to enact a series of economic reforms in exchange for $96 million from donors.
Following the announcement that the price of gas would increase by 38 percent, diesel by 47 percent and kerosene by 51 percent, angry Haitians took to the streets, burning tires and erecting road blocks. Luxury hotels were attacked, and businesses were vandalized and looted as protesters demanded the departure of Lafontant and Moïse.
On Saturday, Haiti’s Lower Chamber of Deputies took matters into its own hands. But after the leader of the majority bloc, Deputy Jean Wilson Hippolite, called for a 10-minute suspension in the hearing, Lafontant took the mic to defend himself and to announce that he had already resigned and that Moïse had accepted it.
“I wasn’t in a search of a job. That’s not why I became prime minister. I could have succeeded anywhere in the world,” he said. “But I chose to succeed in my country. I chose to serve my country.”
The government’s fall is the ultimate price for the widespread unrest and violent demonstrations that broke out last Friday after the fuel increase announcement. At least three people died, including a police officer, and U.S. air carriers temporarily canceled flights. Unable to get around road blocks, Haitians and tourists became stuck in their places of employment, hotel lobbies and elsewhere — some for as long as three days.
As relative calm returned early in the week, tensions remained and a political crisis brewed as Lafontant showed no signs of resigning, preferring instead to have his fate decided by the Lower Chamber of Deputies.
“Haitian people!” Lafontant tweeted at 4:51 a.m. Friday. “I will be at the historic rendezvous with the Parliament this Saturday, 14 July, at 10h AM, to respond to the summons of the Deputies of the opposition, and talk about the achievements of the Moïse/Lafontant administration.”
In a later tweet, he told the population that all of their aspirations are “in the hands of the Deputies.”
In anticipation of protests and possibly more violence on Saturday, foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince braced themselves. France warned citizens in a security alert to exercise caution. Canada told its citizens in Haiti to consider getting essential supplies and limit their movement because the “situation remains fluid and unpredictable,” with further demonstrations planned for Saturday and Sunday.
The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, issued a demonstration alert just as the hearing began, three hours late with 61 out of 117 deputies present in the chamber.
“We’ve been in a political crisis since last week,” Gary Bodeau, the president of the Lower Chamber of Deputies, said Saturday as he headed to parliament. “The population is watching.”
Acknowledging Haiti’s volatility going into Saturday vote, Bodeau said it was not the traditional opposition that was making demands in Haiti. It was the people, he said, “taking their destiny in their own hands.”
“Today, you have a movement without a leader, and that’s what makes these kinds of movements dangerous,” he said.
After opening the hearing, Bodeau announced that it was the continuation of the no-confidence vote on Lafontant’s government performance that was called by 16 opposition lawmakers last month but put on hold after questions arose about the legitimacy of four newly appointed ministers in his cabinet.
“The government violated the constitution,” opposition Deputy Marcel Jean Lumérant of Grand Goave said after getting into a verbal scuffle with fellow Deputy Alfredo Antoine of Kenscoff, who tried to block Lumérant’s speech.
The nominations were illegal, Lumérant said, noting that a report by the country’s Court of Auditors ruled that the ministers should have had financial clearance before their appointments because they once managed public funds.
“Your government is incapable, it is incompetent. It has plunged the country in a situation where it has buried the hopes of the young men and young women,” he said, directing his comments to Lafontant, who sometimes remained serious, and other times smirked at the accusations being lobbed at him.
Lumérant then reminded Lafontant of his confirmation hearing, and the litany of promises he made about how he would turn Haiti around. None of those promises have been met, Lumérant said, as he singled out the government’s poor cash management that has Haiti running a $150 million budget; the fuel price hike debacle; and the fight on corruption that, instead of leading to the arrest of a fired minister implicated in a school kits scandal, ended with him being rewarded with another top government post.
“The population has shouted. We must listen and seek reparation and justice,” Lumérant said. “Today the hope of the population has fallen. They were forced to go into the streets to express themselves, their frustrations, their lack of confidence with the people who are governing them. They don’t trust any of us.”
He concluded his speech by presenting a motion for censure signed by 16 deputies. Moments later, Deputy Jean Wilson Hippolite. the leader of the majority bloc in the parliament, realizing where the vote was headed, asked for a 10-minute suspension of the hearing. Some lawmakers suspected it was to get Lafontant to resign, rather than to leave the impression that the government was overthrown by a small majority of opposition lawmakers.
After the hearing resumed, Lafontant took the microphone and informed the chamber that he had already handed in his resignation. There was little applause. Bodeau then announced the hearing was over, sending the room into an uproar, with deputies angry that they were being prevented from casting a vote against the government. The president of the Senate, Joseph Lambert, later criticized Bodeau’s handling of the hearing in a tweet, saying a vote was required.
Lafontant’s resignation now means that Moïse has to find a new prime minister. In a three-minute address to the nation late Saturday, Moise thanked Lafontant and his cabinet for their service. He said he plans to continue consulaations he started last week with all institutions, parliament, political parties “so that I can choose another prime minister to lead the government and assemble all the forces of the nation without delay. To form a govenment that is inclusive.”
“Violence doesn’t work with either development or democracy,” he said, calling on Haitians to break the practice. “I understand the situation of a lot of compatriots that unemployment, hunger and misery are killing them. We are working for them.”
Moïse’s speech was solemn and much different than his previous addresses. He appeared to want to bring the nation together during a difficult period. Failure to reach a consensus with both chambers of parliament on the next government could plunge Haiti deeper into a crisis. It would also delay decisions like revisiting the agreement with the IMF, which said on Thursday that Haiti still needs to raise its fuel prices to align them with prices on the global market.
This time, however, the increases should be gradual, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said, and include programs such as transportation vouchers to mitigate the impact on the country’s 6 million citizens who live on less than $2.25 a day.
By keeping fuel prices artificially low, Haiti is losing about $160 million a year, the IMF said, money that could be spent on badly needed social programs.
The fuel price measure is just one of the difficult issues awaiting Haiti’s next government.
Earlier this year, the IMF downgraded the country’s expected economic growth from a government-projected 3.9 percent to 2 percent. The recent losses as a result of the violence, will only further raise the country’s inflation rate, which was 12.8 percent in May, economists fear.
The shock to the already weak economy could also have further negative social impacts.
“Things do not look good for any upcoming government,” said Kesner Pharel, a Port-au-Prince-based economist. “Great challenges are awaiting the next government.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was closely monitoring developments during the unrest, said the recent events “are not the kinds of things that encourage” investment in Haiti, which desperately needs to create jobs.
“Imagine if you were working on a deal to invest in Haiti and this broke out,” he said of the civil unrest.
Whoever is chosen to run the country’s next government, Rubio said, needs to consider one fundamental question: “What does Haiti want to look like in 10, 15, 20 years?”
“What are people going to do for a living? What is it that’s going to keep people in Haiti beyond their family and the fact that they are from there? What is it that you need?” Rubio said. ”And once you’ve identified your vision, who want to be in the country, 10, 15, 20 years from now, then you can determine the components that need to be in place to allow that to happen.”
But no matter what, there are some basics the country is going to need: rule of law, some level of foreign investment and property protection for companies as well as security and infrastructure.
“They are going to want to believe there Is a government they are dealing with that isn’t going to shake them down,” Rubio said.
Since the unrest, Rubio said he’s reached out to several donors to see what kind of assistance they could offer Haiti to help address some of its socioeconomic issues. Haiti, meanwhile, sought help from Venezuela, dispatching its foreign minister to Caracas to see if the South American country could either provide more fuel, or allow it to tap money it owes as part of its debt repayment but has been unable to send to Caracas because of U.S. sanctions on the Nicolás Maduro regime.
Moïse, who has been in office for 17 months, has been a harsh critic of foreign aid to Haiti.
In a meeting with South Florida’s Haitian community last June, he told the audience that he told U..S. Vice President Mike Pence — whom he had met the day before — ”You can tell President Trump for me, ‘Haiti doesn’t need aid; aid gives us problems. It’s better to give us support instead, for me to [tackle] correct the corruption.’ ”
Months later, while meeting with foreign diplomats in Port-au-Prince, he demanded that foreign donors support his campaign promises or take their aid elsewhere.
“He wants to be able to control more of how that aid is distributed from the government side and especially from the NGO,” said Rubio, who said Moïse again raised the aid issue when the two met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in April in Peru. “There’s going to be pushback to that. I know he believes in that, but you can just imagine how donors feel. Most of those NGOs are not willing to turn that money over and be directed by the government.”