For Haitians, a reprieve from violence and protests on Sunday, but uncertainty remains

After more than a week of hunkering down, Haitians got a reprieve Sunday from the violence and protests that have rocked the country since Feb. 7.

But for Haitians life remained filled with anxiety and uncertainty as they wondered whether the worst had passed, or yet to come as many spent the day waiting in lines. They were waiting for water, for bread, for propane gas, for remittances.

“It’s the same feeling like when Jean-Claude left,” said supermarket owner Abraham Rayes, referring to the departure of Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose 1986 departure from Haiti amid a popular uprising ushered in the country’s 33-year tumultuous democracy. “Not the killings, but the shortages; water, food, electricity.”

The store’s first full day of normal operations since protests began was Saturday. But on Sunday the family wondered if they would need to close early as they waited to see if an announced protest by the opposition would materialize.

“A lot of people rather stay close than open,” Rayes’ son, Christopher, said.

Christopher Rayes said while he wouldn’t call the anxiety and uncertainty many Haitians are feeling the new normal, there is panic.

“The economy is bad, really bad,” he said standing in the aisle of Fresh Market, where like at many other supermarkets supplies were running low because normal supply chains have been cut off by rioting and roadblocks. “Food prices are going up and the minimum wage is [$6.12] a day. ...You have to work three days to buy rice and cooking oil.”

Erta Degramond, 51, an unemployed mother, said life in Haiti has become unbearable.

Standing in line at a water stand along Rue Capois and Marcelin in Port-au-Prince, Degramond said while food was already expensive before the protests, it has become even more so in recent days.

A woman plans to purchase water using old radiator coolant jugs as residents of Port-au-Prince, Haiti stood in line for essentials as Haiti’s political crisis disrupts the daily life of many Haitians while enduring the long wait and lines for gas and water throughout the capital city on Sunday, February 17, 2019. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“People can not eat,” she said. “You can’t afford anything, even if you have money in your hands.”

Degramond said she survived the past 10 days by boiling water to drink. But her fuel was running low. So like many on Saturday and Sunday, she decided to take her chances and venture out. What she found were long lines everywhere as crowds spilled out into the streets.

With six empty radiator-fluid gallon containers in her hand to fill with drinking water, she had already been waiting for more than an hour-and-a-half, and had no idea when she would be served. A gentleman standing behind her said he had been waiting just as long to fill his five gallon bottle.

They began to debate the situation among them.

“When you are hungry, it’s not sweet,” said the gentleman who only would give his name as Jean. “Food should not be a luxury.”

Both had heard President Jovenel Moïse’s address to the nation on Thursday, and that of Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant’s late Saturday. Neither was impressed, they said.

“The president didn’t say anything serious,” Degramond said, “and the population will always crank up the pressure. If he had spoken the way he was supposed to speak, all of the protests would be over.”

Still, she wondered about the results of the protests. “For all they did, there should have been some change. I don’t see any.”

During his address to the nation, Céant reiterated the president’s appeal for dialogue with the opposition.

“It’s been ten days since children have been unable to go to school, hospitals can’t provide healthcare, big businesses and small businesses can’t function,” he said. “It’s been 10 days since the government has lost a lot of money. At the same time, the population has suffered a lot. Because of the roadblocks, it cannot find potable water, it can’t eat, it can’t find gas, it can’t get electricity. All of this can take us to a deep humanitarian crisis.”

He promised that an investigation into the alleged misspending of nearly $2 billion from the Venezuela PetroCaribe discount oil program, which was supposed to be invested in programs for the poor, will happen.

“I guarantee you the youth that the question will not go unanswered,” Céant said Saturday, referring to the question — “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or Where is the PetroCaribe money? — that Haitians, and the youth in particular, have been posing, and has been at the heart of the protests along with the government’s mismanagement of the economy.

Still, while Céant reiterated some financial measures, like reducing his ministry’s budget by 30 percent and limiting government travel, he did not provide a concrete road map showing how he plans to tackle the 15 percent inflation and rapid depreciation of the domestic currency.

Andre Michel, a spokesman for the opposition demanding Moïse’s resignation, said Céant’s speech was “full of fanciful promises that will never be satisfied.” He noted that the president himself is implicated in the PettroCaribe corruption allegations and therefore a trial would never take place under his watch.

Harold Lazard, a chemistry professor waiting over six hours for propane gas, said he did agree with the prime minister on one thing: Haiti’s problems did not begin overnight and are rooted in corruption, inequality and bad governance.

“We are living in misery and hunger,” Lazard, 43, said. The population, he said, wants the president to go, “so there can be change, there can be another system, one where we have hospitals that function, healthcare, education, security. With this system we have here the poor are dying of hunger with only dirt to eat.

Lazard, who believes protests will continue in the coming days despite an invitation Sunday from the government for the population to resume its normal activities, said those who credit the opposition with putting the country on lock down are ill-informed.

“It’s not the opposition who closed the country but the population,” he said. “It’s the population that has decided it no longer wants to live in hunger, in misery.”

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.