Haiti president on demands for him to resign: ‘It would be irresponsible on my part’

Haiti’s embattled president broke a weeks-long silence Tuesday, telling his protesting nation that while he hears their cries in the streets, he has no intentions of stepping down.

“It would be irresponsible on my part for me to stand here today, to sign and submit a letter of resignation and say ‘I am leaving’ and leave the country like this and the system regenerates itself,” President Jovenel Moïse said during an impromptu press conference on the grounds of the National Palace.

Casting himself as the victim of Haiti’s constitution and “a system” that encourages underdevelopment and misery, Moïse evoked the language of his critics over Haiti’s outgrown system in hopes of quelling tensions as Haiti faced a fifth week of paralysis.

Moïse also blamed the constitution and Parliament for his inability to improve Haitians’ lives.

“Parliament spent eight months refusing to give us a government,” said Moïse, who came to office 32 months ago.

Those calling for Moïse’s resignation have called for a different kind of system to govern the country, arguing that the current one, created after the fall of the 1986 Duvalier family dictatorship, only benefits a few. With 60 percent of the population earning less than $2 a day, and 20 percent of the population controlling 60 percent of the wealth, Haiti, with 11 million people, is one of the hemisphere’s most unequal countries.

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A demonstrator carries the Creole message “We want a different Haiti” during a march led by the art community to continue demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Protests have paralyzed the country for nearly a month, shuttering businesses and schools. Rebecca Blackwell AP

The reaction to Moïse’s rare public appearance, which came on the same day that the United Nations ended its peacekeeping presence after 15 years, was swift. Fearing more of the widespread protests, burning tires and barricades that have paralyzed Haiti since last month, many Haitians in Port-au-Prince rushed home to get off the streets..

“He showed he’s a president who lacks competence,” said Lemète Zéphyr, a professor and spokesman for a group of activists, university professors and chambers of commerce working on a transition plan.

Zéphyr said Moïse may have sped up his own departure with his antagonizing speech.

“He attacked his base. He attacked the people who put him in power and he showed the population he wasn’t doing anything. This is why they made him president, to resolve their problems,” Zéphyr said. “He hasn’t shown any effort to change the system that he said is no good.”

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Moïse opened his address by insinuating that he was a victim of powerful interests in Haiti, interests that support a system that provides double-digit interest rates to the poor from the government-run pension fund, while low rates to the rich and powerful. A system, he said, that has guardians and heirs.

“The system has victims too. You the people who are listening to me, watching me, you are victims of the system also,” he said.

Members of the presidential guard provide security on the road as they await the passage of the president’s convoy on its way to the National Palace, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Rebecca Blackwell AP

To illustrate his point, he spoke of several contracts he said his administration had canceled. The president did not name names, and was selective in the details. But at least two of the contracts he singled out were awarded under former President Michel Martelly, who handpicked Moïse to succeed him.

One of the contracts involved a $43 million payment that Moïse said the interim government of President Jocelerme Privert issued to rebuild the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. He failed to mention, however, that the contract was entered into by the Martelly government over the objections of the international community due to the high interest payments. Martelly’s administration also approved a 10-year border contract with an Israeli firm for $22 million a year.

“If I were to list the quantity of contracts, advantages the system used to give that we... have decided to cancel, it would take me a day,” Moïse said.

Moïse acknowledged that things are not easy in Haiti today. The United Nations ended its 15-year peacekeeping presence Tuesday, and a group of university students entered their third day of a hunger strike at the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince to demand Moïse’s resignation. Schools and businesses have remained shuttered, and at least 30 people died in the violence since last month, said the U.N.

Protesters led by the art community demand the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise as they march through Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Protests have paralyzed the country for nearly a month, shuttering businesses and schools. Rebecca Blackwell AP

“You didn’t vote me to come fight with anyone. You voted me so that I could come fight against a system,” he said. “It would be difficult for anyone who became president today to confront this system because it has the capacity to regenerate itself.”

While he addressed the Haitian population and took questions from reporters, the U.N. Security Council met in New York, where diplomats reflected on their mixed Haiti peacekeeping record, the current turmoil and continued calls for dialogue among Haitians.

“Haiti certainly gives us a lot to reflect upon,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for peace operations told the Security Council. “The country is facing a significant political crisis, intertwined with socio-economic challenges. These, in turn, affect the security environment, which further feeds political instability — a cycle that the country has seen one too many times.”

Lacroix then provided a litany of the current political turbulence including the opposition’s position that Moïse’s Sept. 25 call for a national dialogue and the formation of a unity government was “too little, too late.”

“Opposition groups are putting forward the acceptance by the president of the principle of his departure as a precondition for dialogue, thereby leaving little room for negotiation of a unity government,” Lacroix said. ”Mistrust is making compromise difficult, and yet the formation of such a government may well provide a way forward to lasting political solutions that are desperately needed.”

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President Jovenel Moïse, left, arrives alongside former Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin, for a presidential press conference at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Haiti’s embattled president faced a fifth week of protests as road blocks and marches continue across the country, after opposition leaders said they will not back down on their call for Moïse to resign.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) Rebecca Blackwell AP

That remained a distant possibility Tuesday even as Moïse called for the opposition to come to the negotiating table, saying Haiti needs “serenity and calm.” He had read all of the proposals for his departure, he said, but noted that previous departures by a sitting president in 1986 and 2004 had not gotten the country anywhere.

He believed the country was “worse off,” after the 2004 forced departure of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “We all have to work together,” Moïse said.

Activists calling for Moïse’s departure said his speech will only add fuel to their calls for renewed protests on Thursday when Haiti commemorates the assassination of its founding father, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

“He doesn’t take any responsibility,” said Velina Charlier, a member of the anti-corruption grassroots organization Nou Pap Dòmi (We are not Sleeping).

In a statement, Nou Pap Dòmi said: “The president must resign. He has no credibility and has long lost our trust. Our position remains the same: A corrupt president can’t govern our nation.”

Opposition leader and attorney André Michel said the president’s speech lacked credibility.

“Mr. Jovenel Moise does not have the moral authority to attack the guards of the exclusionary system that we are fighting today because his election campaign was betrothed by these people,” Michel said, adding that during the 2016 elections Moïse “had at his disposal more economic means than all the other candidates together.”

Recalling the helicopters that flew the president to campaign stops and the boats that carried rice, iron and zinc sheeting to hurricane victims in Jeremie on his behalf, Michel said: “We are all aware of the need to break this system. That’s why we fight every day alongside the Haitian people.”

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.