Anti-government demonstrations demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse escalated Friday in Haiti, as protesters throughout the country burned tires, erected barricades and ransacked and pillaged police stations and set businesses on fire.
Car dealerships, banks and an electronics store in Petionville all came under attack as billows of black smoke enveloped the capital. Radio journalists reported crowds in St. Marc marching with machetes as others in the southern port city of Les Cayes disarmed policemen before burning sacks of looted rice in the middle of the street. In Cité Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum, demonstrators attacked a Haiti National Police base, emptying it of its furnishings and walking away with them, in a scene captured on video.
Chanting “Catch the thief,” and “Liberty or death,” some protesters carried empty plates to symbolize Moïse’s broken promise to provide food. Protesters descended on Haiti’s major cities, where makeshift barricades and burning tires made roads virtually impassable. As the widespread unrest spread, panic ensued in private homes and in diplomatic circles.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Radio Kiskeya CEO Marvel Dandin, describing the oversize barricades that have evolved from simple tires to iron gates, tree trunks and large boulders. “A lot of rocks, a lot of branches, and the people are very aggressive.”
Dandin, who got caught in the movement as he made his way from a funeral to downtown Port-au-Prince, said what is happening has no comparison with the last mass movement, in 2004, to oust a democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide eventually fled into exile in South Africa before returning to Haiti seven years later on the eve of the runoff elections that brought to power Michel Martelly, the musician turned politician who chose Moïse as his successor.
“That was bourgeois and professionals,” Dandin said about 2004. “This is the people; people from all sectors who are against corruption, against thievery. They are tired of the lies, tired of the false promises.”
Alfredo Antoine, a government ally in the Lower Chamber of Deputies, said while Haitians have a right to protest, he criticized his colleagues, some of whom he said were encouraging civil war.
“It’s normal for a population who disagrees with the way of life their leaders are governing to protest,” Antoine said. “But it has to be peaceful.”
On Wednesday, Moïse signaled in a pre-recorded address broadcast at 2 a.m. that he might be ready to drop his latest choice for prime minister, Fritz William Michel, and proposed a government of unity. Unsold on his words and offer of dialogue, protesters took to the streets in renewed calls for his departure.
On Thursday, Moïse again tried to extend an olive branch. This time, in a tweet, he announced that he had asked Religions for Peace, an inter-religious group of Haiti’s principal religions, to play the role of mediator between him and the opposition pushing for him to resign.
The concession came after more than a year of requests from the United States, Canada, France, and the United Nations for Moïse to hold a national dialogue to lead Haiti out of the political crisis that has engulfed his 31 months in office.
Asked about the request for Religions for Peace to step in, leaders from both the radical and moderate opposition said the only negotiations that the faith group can mediate is Moïse’s exit.
“It cannot do anything else,” said opposition Sen. Youri Latortue. “We are in a situation that is unacceptable.”
In a strongly worded statement, the Episcopal Conference of Haiti, which includes all of the Catholic bishops, said Friday that it was time for the highest officials of the state to assume their responsibilities to ensure the smooth running of the country and its institutions.
“They are morally responsible for the safety and well-being of the population. And, in the first place, the President of the Republic,” the bishops said. “If the country is on fire, it is because of their irresponsibility. How can they not know what everyone knows?...It is now that they must act to change the life in Haiti. Tomorrow will be too late.”
Gary Bodeau, the head of the Lower Chamber of Deputies, told the Miami Herald he hoped political leaders wouldn’t be so quick to “spit on Religions for Peace” even if he himself doesn’t yet see what its role would be. The escalating crisis, he said, quickly needs a solution and it must be led by Haitians, not the international community.
“Haiti is for the leaders of the opposition and for those in power; it’s for the parliamentarians. So it’s not the international community that is going to come do a political accord,” said Bodeau, who noted he had spent most of the day working the phones trying to find a solution to the crisis.
For any political accord to be possible, however, Bodeau said, “all options have to be on the table. We need a road map and that means everyone’s mandate, [Sen. Joseph] Lambert, [Sen. Jean Marie Ralph] Féthière’s mandate. This is not a question about saving mandates. It’s a question about saving the country.”
Bodeau said what he saw on Friday and in the days leading up to the violence that engulfed the country worries him.
“Today we have a total absence of the authority of the state; all of the institutions are in danger. The state is closed and can’t even collect taxes,” he added.
Prior to Friday, a prized business, Caribbean Craft, near the airport, had two of its buildings and half of another gutted by fire. Owner Magalie Noel Dresse said she was told that unknown individuals entered an Avis Car Rental next door to set it on fire.
“Because of the lockdowns, we were unable to receive containers to ship production. It was delayed,” Dresse said. “So we have lost everything in this building and that includes all of the holiday collection for companies like West Elm.”
Caribbean Craft was one of the few success stories after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. The home decor and crafts shop has been visited by Oprah Winfrey and Bill and Chelsea Clinton. Most of the 120 full-time employees and 70 contractual workers are women and many live in the nearby Cité Soleil slum.
Dresse, who has fought to keep the business running even after a lawmaker threatened to burn down the building claiming the property belonged to him, said she is saddened by what happened.
“I am sad. I am angry, not for me but for the hundreds who depend on us. And I am concerned about what the priorities of my past governments have been. It is obvious it’s not about exports and job creation. It’s time for this to stop and for people who have passion and vision for this country to step forward and do something about it.”
Others like Father Richard Frechette are also worried about the future of Haiti and when the rising tensions will end.
The severe shortages of fuel, the scandal over the funds that subsidized fuel, and the frequent and violent blocking of the roads, he said, have brought dramatic challenges to every single person in Haiti.
This week it hit home when Frechette and his team were attacked while burying 55 bodies from his hospital’s morgue, and his truck was burned after a local radio station reported that he was burying individuals killed by Moïse. It wasn’t true.
The ongoing fuel shortage and roadblocks meant that more than a week’s worth of garbage had piled up at St. Damien Hospital, as well as bodies in the morgue. There wasn’t even room for a dead newborn, Frechette said. “We could not hold these dead even one more day.”
Frechette got permission from the Drouillard cemetery to bury the bodies, driving through roadblocks and fires.
“When we unloaded the bodies from the truck, someone reported to the radio station of the opposition that St. Luke Foundation was burying the bodies of the victims of President Jovenel Moïse, people shot and killed for protesting,” he said. “Suddenly we were attacked without knowing why. We were held hostage in the cemetery. The bandits closed us in behind the gates.”
Eventually Frechette got out, but without his truck and several of his team members. He later learned that the truck was burned but the team was safe.
The Missionaries of Charity, he said, have also been attacked in recent days.
“Seems none of us can count anymore on our name, history, track record. The young people seem to be intoxicated with hatred and violence. It’s a new generation,” Frechette said.