Haiti business leaders ask president to break gridlock after another day of violence

As “Operation lock down Haiti” marked its fifth day Monday, the country’s leading business chambers called on Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to come to the negotiating table in order to end violent demonstrations that have left at least eight people dead, a dozen injured and businesses pillaged and burned.

The head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the departmental chambers that constitute it, said they are not asking for Moïse to resign. But Moïse’s departure from office and that of his prime minister, Jean Henry Céant , or the presidents of both the Senate and Lower Chamber of Deputies, should not be off limits in discussions with the opposition “in order to have peace so the people can return to their homes,” said Frantz Bernard Craan.

“We need the president, the prime minister and the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to ask the different parties of the opposition to come to the table of negotiations, but agree that their mandate is on the table and all of the conclusions will be accepted,” Craan added.

“We feel that people do not trust Jovenel Moïse to respect his word. So if he takes a public commitment to do what we’re asking, it may create the atmosphere necessary to have the negotiations,” he said. “We’re also asking for a board of wise persons to be named by different segments of society to conduct the negotiations because we don’t feel any of the actual authorities have enough legitimacy to conduct those negotiations.”

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Police officers stand near the body of a person killed during the violent clashes between the police and demonstrators near the national palace, during a protest to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise and demanding to know how Petro Caribe funds have been used by the current and past administrations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Since Thursday, violent demonstrations have shut down schools, businesses, public transport and other activities in cities across Haiti, leading the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince to consider ordering departure for children of American diplomats, and some staffers.

“The safety and security of our personnel and their families is our top priority. We are monitoring the security situation in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said a State Department spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who declined to confirm if the embassy had requested the departures. “We are prepared to do the things we need to do to make sure we keep our people safe.”

The latest protests have been triggered by frustrations over the country’s double-digit inflation, skyrocketing prices, and a domestic currency in a free fall against the U.S. dollar. Haitians are also upset by years of government ineptness and mismanagement that has triggered an audit of nearly $2 billion in funds from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe discount oil program that was supposed to be invested in social programs.

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Tires burn in the street during a protest to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise and demanding to know how Petro Caribe funds have been used by the current and past administrations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. Much of the financial support to help Haiti rebuild after the 2010 earthquake comes from Venezuela’s Petro Caribe fund, a 2005 pact that gives suppliers below-market financing for oil and is under the control of the central government. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) Dieu Nalio Chery AP

In the face of the social demands, the government has remained silent, though presidential advisers made the radio rounds on Monday defending Moïse and resisting demands for his resignation. On Sunday, the international community broke its silence and called on Haiti’s political actors “to engage in a constructive and inclusive dialogue in order to identify and implement realistic and lasting solutions to the political and economic crisis.” It also reminded Haitian citizens that “in a democracy change must come through the ballot box, and not through violence.”

The communique was met with almost immediate backlash from the opposition. While some pointed out that the U.S. and others recently chose to recognize Juan Guaidó, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as the country’s acting president over Nicolás Maduro, a position that Haiti also supported, others noted that elections have seldom brought stability to Haiti.

“We would like to remind the friends of Haiti that what’s happening here is in part the result of their work,” a group of political parties demanding Moïse’s resignation and the protests said in a statement. “It’s the failure of a strategy that lies in making decisions on behalf of Haiti behind the Haitian people’s back every time that there is a feud inside the country; the strategy of giving orders to leaders that were installed through shady elections. It’s that formula that has brought this system to life that excludes the masses.“

Georges Sassine, president of the Association of Haitian Industries, a grouping of Haiti’s manufacturing companies, said something needs to be done.

“If we let the streets decide, we are going to all be carried away like a tsunami wave,” he said.

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Masked protesters carry off a sack filled with looted items, during a protest demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. Protesters are angry about skyrocketing inflation and the government’s failure to prosecute embezzlement from a multi-billion Venezuelan program that sent discounted oil to Haiti. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) Dieu Nalio Chery AP

On Monday, as scores of protesters marched through Cité Soleil and Kenscoff, along Delmas road it was chaos as a police officer was shot and protesters looted businesses and four bandits tried to pillage a bank before being arrested. Further north in the city of St. Marc, no cars could enter or leave the city, which protesters had on lock down. Some even tried to burn down the mayor’s office, said assistant mayor Frantz Ulysse. Ulysse said he supports the protesters and their demands.

The escalating violence is worrisome, said Craan.

“The situation is heading toward a catastrophe,” he said. “People are in the streets. Thugs are attacking businesses, gas stations are burning, tires are burning in the streets, people are setting up road blocks and asking people to pay to go through. This is not acceptable. The police, even though they are trying, do not have the means to control what we see coming.

“All of the authorities need to make the sacrifice to pacify the population which is struggling, and justifiably angry, because they are facing a difficult economic situation and they need the authorities to take the right steps. Until now the steps have not been taken.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.