Thousands protest corruption in Haiti as president calls for unity and patience

An anti-corruption campaign that started on social media saw its biggest street protest yet when tens of thousands of Haitians took to the streets across the Caribbean country Wednesday to demand an accounting for nearly $2 billion in allegedly misused funds from an oil program sponsored by Venezuela that was supposed to be used to rebuild the country after its devastating 2010 earthquake.

Haitian National Police spokesman Michel-Ange Louis-Jeune said at least two people were killed during the tension-filled day and several others were wounded by gunshots including five people in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second largest city. The wounded were taken by police to a local hospital.

Early in the day, a Port-au-Prince police officer was injured when a rock was thrown and hit his head at Pont-Rouge near Cité Soleil. Police responded by firing shots in the air and were videotaped scrambling on the ground for cover. The officers had been providing security for Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who was visiting the site with members of his government to lay a wreath, as is customary, to commemorate the death of founding father Jean Jacques Dessalines. He was assassinated at Pont-Rouge on Oct. 17, 1806.

When the violence erupted, the president, who had been met by crowds of protesters and some supporters, had departed in his motorcade. He was flown by helicopter to Marchand Dessalines, the city that Dessaline founded and Haiti’s first strategic capital after independence.

In Port-au-Prince, Louis-Jeune said protesters damaged several buildings and vehicles, threw rocks at the Swiss embassy, blew up a car and, at Morne Lazard, attempted to burn down a gas station. At least 11 police vehicles were either damaged or set ablaze, while 11 officers were injured with rocks. In Gonaives, where Sen. Youri Latortue led one of the anti-corruption protests, Louis-Jeune said ”lots of rocks” were thrown and flaming tire barricades were erected in front of the law school. Overall. at least eight arrests were made, he added.

“The police continue to work to guarantee the security of the protesters.,” Louis-Jeune said, as protesters barricaded the road in St Marc, blocking government ministers and other motorists from traveling between Marchand Dessalines and Port-au-Prince.

The protests — which took place on the 212th anniversary of the assassination of Dessalines, a slave-turned-revolutionary hero who declared Haiti free from French rule in 1804 — extended all the way to Miami. About 100 protesters gathered in Little Haiti, holding up signs depicting Moïse and convicted drug trafficker Guy Philippe side by side, while singing a refrain in Creole —“corner the thief” — to the sounds of beating drums.

In Haiti, where the protests drew a crowd, that included many young people fed up with the country’s governance, rising cost-of-living and lack of jobs, the chant was the same. Donning black-and-white T-shirts with the Creole words Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a, or “where is the PetroCaribe money,” some protesters also demanded an international audit of the government’s books. They chanted, “arrest the accusers” and called for Moïse’s resignation.

The PetroCaribe program allows Haiti and several other struggling Caribbean and Central American countries to acquire petroleum products at a discounted price and pay the costs over 25 years at a 1 percent interest rate. The savings are supposed to finance social and economic projects — which critics in Haiti say has not happened.

Moïse addressed Haitians during the government’s official commemoration of Dessalines’ death in Marchand Dessalines, asking for an end to divisions, as well as patience and understanding as he touted his accomplishments during his 20 months in office. He told Haitians he understood their frustrations and impatience, but progress couldn’t be achieved through anarchy.

“I am renewing my engagement to work with everybody, in every sector — public, private — to change the way our country is today,” he said.

Though protesters often referenced $3.5 billion in misused PetroCaribe funds, the actual amount owed to Venezuela is about $1.8 billion. All of it was accumulated in the past eight years after Venezuela, following the earthquake, forgave about $300 million Haiti owed. Two reports out of the Haitian Senate have accused more than a dozen former government officials and heads of private firms of embezzling the money.

While he didn’t address the protests directly, Moïse did mention corruption several times during his hour-and-six-minute speech., saying he was committed to cracking down on it. But other than some members of his administration removing fake employees from their payrolls, Moïse hasn’t shown any great commitment.

“It’s not by vandalizing ... burning of tires, which has become a profession, that we will resolve our problems,” Moïse said. ”When you decide to burn tires, it’s your children who will pay the price. ...Today I ask everyone, we may not agree on certain things, but you don’t have to destroy.”