The new wave of anti-government protests engulfing Haiti could soon devolve into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, leaving thousands of Haitians — already facing fuel and food shortages in the countryside — in severe hunger, the United Nations warns.
U.N. agencies say the security incidents and roadblocks spurred by the widespread protests demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse are disrupting the ability of humanitarian organizations to bring relief to impoverished Haitians who rely on cash transfers, food and other aid.
In the wake of the violent demonstrations that resumed last Monday, protesters have set cars and police stations ablaze and barricaded major roadways around the country. In Carbaret, a city just north of Port-au-Prince on Route National 1, they dug a trench, about four feet wide and four feet deep on both sides of a bridge, blocking transportation between the capital and Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien in the north.
Farther east, on the road between Port-au-Prince and Malpasse, protesters have turned a semi-trailer on its side, effectively cutting off the road that provides access to one of the largest trading markets located on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.
And in the southeast, the family of a man killed by Haiti National Police officers built a trench outside their house, effectively cutting off traffic between the towns of Marigot and Jacmel. The act of defiance came after the family accused two plainclothes officers of shooting at their relative, identified only as Andreson, who was reportedly unarmed and innocently riding by on the back of a motorcycle taxi on Monday. The relatives also burned the Marigot police station and a car in protest.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program has had to suspend all food deliveries to schools around the country, since Sept. 16 when protests first spread due to a recurring fuel shortage and then evolved into riots and massive demands for the president to step down. The agency’s cash transfers to more than 37,000 people in the Grand’Anse, Artibonite and North departments have also had to be put on hold due to the volatility and a fuel shortage that started in August and is still affecting communities outside of Port-au-Prince because fuel trucks cannot get through the barricades.
“Our colleagues report that the health sector is probably the most impacted, with hospitals facing significant challenges to operate,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at a Wednesday press conference in New York. “Fuel shortages, lack of safe water and other essentials are also affecting orphanages, civil protection units and other emergency services, which are also functioning with limited capacity.”
Dujarric’s assessment echoed one earlier this week by the president of the Association of Private Hospitals in Haiti. Speaking to journalists on Port-au-Prince-based Magik9 100.9 FM, Franck Généus advocated for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in order to get medication, oxygen, water, fuel and other assistance to hospitals that were running out because of the intensifying street protests.
According to the latest U.N. situation report, 2.6 million Haitians were already facing food insecurity before the latest wave of anti-government protests and fuel shortages. The current situation has led to a slowdown of the activities by not only the U.N., which has only raised $31.7 million of the $126 million it has requested from donors, but it’s also impacting private, non-governmental efforts.
Mark A.V. Petersen, a U.S.-based lawyer who helps bring education, potable water, medical and dental services to the town of Bois Tombe east of Port-au-Prince, near the town of Fond Verrettes, said all economic activity has ground to a standstill outside of the capital.
“The 6-7 million people in Haiti outside of Port-au-Prince and other large cities can no longer get propane, rice, gasoline, diesel fuel or cooking oil. In our little village, that means we are no longer feeding children in the school,” Petersen said. “Farmers in remote areas cannot access markets for potatoes, beans, meats, and root vegetables. These goods are rotting at the point of production.”
Petersen said his Friends of Haiti organization, which is supported by the District of Seville in Spain, is the primary source of food for about 500 students in Bois Tombe, who are so poor that they cannot get food at home. These days, however, “we cannot get access to fat, whether it comes from vegetable or canola oil or from animal fat. So, because we cannot get fat or fuel, we cannot cook. The stocks of food are rotting in the mountains.”
In February when protesters locked the country down for nine days, Petersen said he was forced to cancel a trip to Haiti with seven dentists he was taking to provide free and dental care to the town.
This week, he was again forced to cancel because he could not be assured that he would be able to make it from the airport to the town.
“We have a container of goods, just off the coast of Port-au-Pince filled with food, clothing, medicines, medical supplies and other essentials that we are not even landing because we have no way to transport it from the port to our facilities in Bois Tombe,” Petersen said.
On Wednesday, activities slowly started to resume in the capital, but the population remained reticent as unrest continued in some parts of the country and foreign ambassadors continued to meet with political party leaders in hopes of getting them to sit at the negotiating table with Moïse. Adamant that dialogue isn’t possible, opposition leaders recently named a post-Moïse transition commission and have called for more demonstrations on Friday.
There is no simple answer to the political and economic crisis gripping the country, noted Petersen, who said since his first visit to Haiti in 2015, the local currency, the gourde, has depreciated by more than 100 percent as the exchange rate went from 45 gourdes to $1, to about 96 gourdes to $1.
“Someone who was going to buy a bar of soap in 2015 paid the equivalent of $1 U.S. Today the cost is the equivalent of $2 U.S. to buy it in local currency. That summarizes the suffering of Haitians more than anything in the world,” he said.
Like many organizations providing humanitarian assistance, Petersen said, he remains “dedicated to helping people in Bois Tombe,” but in order for help to arrive, the transportation lines need to be reopened and the political environment needs to improve.
The crisis, itself, he added “is an international issue and we cannot solve it from where we are.”