After fiery unrest, Haitian President Moïse must step up and lead

Miami Herald Editorial Board

President Jovenel Moïse took office in February 2017. Last week’s riots have shaken his young administration.
President Jovenel Moïse took office in February 2017. Last week’s riots have shaken his young administration. www.jovenelhaiti.com

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse doesn’t have a mandate and he doesn’t have a coalition. What he does have is a mess on his hands.

Destructive protests erupted last week after the government announced major increases in fuel prices, part of Haiti’s agreement with the International Monetary Fund to secure its assistance.

The increases translated into 51 percent more for kerosene, used by the poorest residents; 47 percent more for diesel; and 38 percent more for gasoline. Such steep price hikes would be daunting in far wealthier countries. But in Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, they’re an impossibly high hurdle.

Moïse made things worse by failing to address the resentment and unrest until long after tires were burning and windows smashed in the capital of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haiten to the north. By the time Moïse’s announced that the fuel price increases were postponed, the damage was done — especially to his presidency.

In February, Haitian officials agreed to reduce subsidies for fuel as part of an IMF assistance package. They also agreed to spend more on social services and infrastructure and to improve tax collection. Though the government had been hinting that increases loomed, there was little effort to really make the case.

Moïse’s election in the fall of 2016 remains controversial. Infighting roiled the Provisional Electoral Council, charged with validating the election results. So the president is standing on a shaky foundation.

He’s going to have to speed up his learning curve if he is to be an effective president, especially for Haitians who have been plunged deeper into poverty. He has sought more autonomy over foreign aid, rightly complaining that the billions poured into Haiti since the 2010 earthquake have been squandered, with little improvement to show for it. But he has also dismissed two Senate corruption investigations — despite repeatedly touting he's serious about cracking down on corruption — into how some of his political allies under former President Michel Martelly allegedly misused $2 billion from Venezuela-sponsored Petrocaribe funds.

But early in his tenure, he also defended, and continues to defend, Venezuela when the Organization of American States called for that dictatorship to be suspended from the body.

The fuel-price increases may have been the final blow, erupting in fiery protests. However, people’s resentment has been building. When United Nations peacekeepers left in 2017 after more than 20 years, the money they spent in restaurants, grocery stores and the like went with them. (Unfortunately, Haiti still is challenged by the cholera they left behind.) NGOs, too, are pulling out, taking revenue. Unemployment is bad, so is inequality. And despite the understandably raw anger that fueled the weekend’s unrest, Haitian rioters attacked many businesses that provided them desperately needed jobs.

Moïse must confront the anger, communicating hard truths to people. He cannot afford to alienate his nation’s funders, and he will have to take responsibility for how aid is spent. He’ll have to woo private investment, which unrest makes more difficult.

And he’s got more challenges on the way. If the Trump administration does not extend Temporary Protected Status to thousands of Haitians, mainly in South Florida. Otherwise they will be required to return to Haiti, needing work and unable to send the remittances from the good jobs that they had here.

Moïse is going to have to abandon his go-it-alone, I-know-best approach and do the hard work of tilling the political and constituent soil.

President Moise needs to understand that Haiti remains a volatile nation. While it's commendable that he wants to bring roads and electricity to far flung reaches of the desperately poor country, Moise needs to understand that Haitians need jobs. He must work with the opposition, however splintered they may be, to build consensus in order to take the kinds of difficult decisions Haiti will need going forward.

He must learn to be a leader for his campaign promises to bear fruit.

[This editorial has been updated]