Protests erupt in Haiti over sharp rise in fuel prices
A well-known public notary who twice ran unsuccessfully for president became Haiti’s newest prime minister on Sunday after the Lower Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly approved his political program and cabinet.
Jean Henry Céant’s ratification came after both chambers of parliament held separate back-to-back marathon sessions that began Friday afternoon in the Senate and ended shortly after sunrise Sunday with the vote in the Lower Chamber. Eighty-four deputies voted overwhelmingly in favor of ratification. Five were against and four abstained.
Céant was tapped to lead Haiti’s government following the forced resignation of Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant in July after his decision to raise fuel prices by as much as 51 percent sparked widespread civil unrest, riots and caused the cancellation of international flights.
“The population cried [for help] on the 6th, 7th of July,” Céant said. “The president heard them. Parliamentarians heard them. Everybody heard them. Today the populating is awaiting all of our responses.”
Lawmakers in both chambers used the confirmation hearing to advocate for projects in their communities, asking for roads, hospitals, drinking water. But there was also plenty of frustration.
Deputies in the lower chamber accused their president, Gary Bodeau, of violating the constitution after he shut down debate over the eligibility of some of the ministers, a debate that the Senate spent seven hours on before Céant was allowed to present his political program.
“We deputies are setting aside our role of control,” said Deputy Sinal Betrand, whose request to temporarily suspend the hearing in order to review the incoming ministers’ paperwork was ignored by Bodeau. ““After what happened the 6th, 7th and 8th, it’s time to stop playing with the population.”
Among the questions lawmakers unsuccessfully sought answers to was whether some ministers had the necessary financial clearance, known as a décharge , to be considered for their new posts. The document is necessary to show well-managed public funds in previous government roles as either ministers or director generals.
Shortly after President Jovenel Moïse published the executive order naming the new cabinet, video circulated showing cars lined up outside of the government’s tax office in Port-au-Prince late at night. Local media reported that some newly named ministers were inside paying their taxes in order to protect their nominations.
Supporters of the new government defended the ministers’ alleged actions, with Céant saying during his hearing that a culture of paying taxes does not exist in the country and parliamentarians themselves could not throw stones. Critics, however, questioned the signal that he and his cabinet were sending in a country struggling with a budget deficit and unable to meet the basic needs of its 11 million residents.
“Today all of the poor people in the country are fed up. Why? Because they feel like they have a state with a stick beating them down with taxes,” said Sen. Antonio Cheramy, one of five senators who voted against the new government.
Sen. Youri Latortue, who was among the 21 senators supporting Céant, put it more bluntly: “There is no money.”
But he believes Céant can make a difference. To do so, Latortue said he will need money and should start to look for it in the missing $2 billion from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe discounted oil funds.
“We are in a situation that is extremely difficult,” Latortue said, noting that 14 percent of the country’s budget is devoted to paying its debt. “Its’ the first time we’ve arrived at this level with the debt in our budge. .... Debt that this population will have to pay over the next 25 years . What debt it is? PetroCaribe; debt that we contracted in buying gas.”
Challenging Céant to launch an investigation during his first 100 days into the allegations that previous governments wasted the money, Latortue said, “we are looking for around $2 billion ... one year’s worth of our budget.”
Bodeau, echoing Latortue’s sentiments, called for an international audit to settle the question of what happened to the money.
Close to both Moïse and former President Michel Martelly, Céant, who has presented an ambitious political program. Among his litany of promises: ambulances in communities around the country, new roads, the development of several regional airports and expansion of the Cap-Haitien international airport, reorganization of the mining bureau and new social and economic pacts to attract domestic and foreign investments. He also spoke of giving the Haitian diaspora the right to vote in national elections.
“It is not acceptable that in 2018 the population is living with food insecurity,” he said of Haiti’s challenges. “It is not normal ... that two-thirds of the population do not have access to healthcare or quality education or housing.”
Acknowledging that Haiti today was facing a profound crisis, he called on both his supporters and detractors to join him in rebuilding “hope, to show every Haitian we understand what happened.”
It will not be easy. Like Lafontant, Céant has never held public office. He faces many challenges, including his role as one of the country’s most powerful notaries and questions about whether he will be his own man, or rubber stamp what the president wants.
One of the first tests awaiting him will come from the International Monetary Fund, which is awaiting the sitting of the new government to address the issue of the removal of fuel subsides — it still wants the fuel hikes, it has said. Meanwhile, international aid is decreasing and the local currency, the gourdes, continues to devalue.
In office for 19 months, Moïse is hard-pressed to show that his presidency is having an impact. He has been at odds with the international community, especially the Trump administration over the question of its support of Venezuela. His own police chief and his flagship public works program known as the Caravan of Change has been criticized by even his own supporters.
“The strategies the president have adopted are not good,” Sen, Kedlaire Augustin, a Moïse supporter, told Céant, while wanting to know if he will have the courage to stand up to the president. “How are you going to help the president have the courage to stand before the nation and tell them the state of the country’s finances so we don’t keep making promises?
“The president needs to have the courage to say he has problems,” with a part of the international community, the private sector and the police, Augustin said.
Augustin was among those who did not vote in favor of Céant, telling him he would abstain because he remained unsure of his sincerity and why he wanted the job.
Céant replied that he and the president shared the same vision of a better Haiti, and asked Augustin and others to join him.
“Today every Haitian, despite how they see themselves, should finally realize there is no first class or economic class in an airplane that’s in distress,” he said. “Everybody has to put their hands together, otherwise we will all perish together