PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti –
Daily life in Haiti began to spiral out of control last month, just hours after Prime Minister Ariel Henry said fuel subsidies would be scrapped, causing prices to double.
Shots were heard as protesters blocked roads with iron gates and mango trees. Then Haiti’s most powerful gang went a step further, digging trenches to block access to the Caribbean country’s largest fuel terminal and vowing not to back down until Henry resigns and fuel and commodity prices come down.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is in the grip of an inflationary vise that is squeezing its citizens and exacerbating the protests that have pushed society to the brink. The violence is raging and makes parents afraid to send their children to school; fuel and clean water are in short supply; and hospitals, banks and supermarkets are struggling to stay open.
The president of the neighboring Dominican Republic described the situation as a “low-intensity civil war.”
Life in Haiti is always extremely difficult, if not downright dysfunctional. But the magnitude of the current paralysis and despair is unprecedented. Political instability has been brewing since last year’s still-unsolved assassination of Haiti’s president; inflation soaring to around 30% has only aggravated the situation.
“If they don’t understand us, we’ll make them understand,” said Pierre Killick Cemelus, who was sweating as he struggled to keep up with thousands of other protesters who marched during a recent demonstration.
The gang-locked fuel depot has been inoperable since September 12, cutting off about 10 million gallons of diesel and gasoline and more than 800,000 gallons of kerosene stored at the site. Many gas stations are closed and others are running out of supplies fast.
Lack of fuel recently forced hospitals to cut critical services and caused water supply companies to close. Banks and grocery stores are also struggling to stay open because of dwindling fuel supplies — and skyrocketing prices — that make it nearly impossible for many workers to travel.
A gallon of gasoline costs $30 on the black market in Port-au-Prince and more than $40 in rural areas. Desperate people walk miles to get food and water because public transportation is extremely limited.
“Haiti is now in complete chaos,” said Alex Dupuy, a Haitian-born sociologist at Wesleyan University. “Basically, you have gangs that do what they want, where they want, when they want with total impunity because the police are not able to control them.”
He called Haiti a “society that generally doesn’t work” and said Henry’s de facto government “doesn’t seem fazed at all by the chaos and is probably benefiting because it allows him to cling to power and prolong time.” the organization of new elections possible”.
Gangs have always wielded considerable power in Haiti. But after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, his influence has grown. They are fighting to control more territory, killing hundreds of Haitians, including women and children, in recent months and driving some 20,000 people from their homes. Kidnappings have skyrocketed.
Henry has vowed to hold elections as soon as it is safe to do so, writing in a speech read at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 that he “has no desire to remain in power any longer than necessary.”
“My country is going through a multidimensional crisis whose consequences threaten democracy and the very foundations of the rule of law,” he said. He condemned the widespread looting and violence and said those responsible “will have to answer for their crimes before history and before the courts.”
US President Joe Biden, also speaking at the UN, said Haiti faces “politically fueled gang violence and an enormous human crisis.”
From 2004 to 2017, UN peacekeepers bolstered the country’s security and helped rebuild political institutions after a violent rebellion toppled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But for now, any foreign intervention in Haiti is off the table. Local political leaders have repudiated the suggestion of outside help, pointing out that UN peacekeepers in Haiti sexually abused children and sparked a cholera epidemic more than a decade ago that killed nearly 10,000 people.
The first round of protests in mid-September led France and Spain to close their embassies and banks in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Protesters attacked businesses, homes of well-known politicians and even United Nations World Food Program warehouses, stealing millions of dollars worth of food and water.
Since then, the protests have gotten bigger. Tens of thousands of people recently marched in Port-au-Prince and beyond, including the cities of Gonaives and Cap-Haitien in the north. They waved leafy green branches and shouted, “Ariel has to go!”
Primary school teacher Jean-Wilson Fabre joined a recent protest when he ducked into a side street to avoid a cloud of tear gas fired by police trying to control the crowd.
“He is not doing anything,” he said of the prime minister.
The 40-year-old father of two lamented the lack of food and water, the rise in kidnappings and the growing power of gangs: “No one is crazy enough to send their children to school in this situation. They won’t be safe.” .”
Fabre is one of millions of parents who refused to send their children to school despite the government announcing a return to classes on October 3 as scheduled in a bid to restore some normalcy amid a situation increasingly unstable.
Haiti’s courts were also scheduled to reopen on October 3, but the country’s Federation of Lawyers turned down an invitation from the prime minister to speak on the issue days earlier, noting that the gangs still occupy a main courthouse in Port-au-Prince, among other problems. .
“With Ariel, things just got worse and worse,” said Merlay Saint-Pierre, a 28-year-old unemployed mother of two who joined a recent protest wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a middle finger.
Hundreds of people have been queuing for hours every day just to buy buckets of water. Delivery trucks are unable to enter the neighborhoods due to roadblocks.
“I am afraid of this water,” said Lionel Simon, 22, noting that he would use it to wash clothes and add chlorine before drinking it.
At least eight people have died of cholera in recent days and dozens more have been treated, according to local health officials who urged protesters and gang leaders to allow fuel and water to reach neighborhoods.
But Simon wasn’t worried about cholera. His biggest concerns are gangs and the rise of young children carrying guns.
“We don’t know if life will return to normal,” he said. “If you die today, you don’t even know if you’re going to make it to a morgue. You could stay on the street for dogs and animals to eat you. That’s how crazy the city has become.”
Dupuy, the Haitian expert, said Henry is unlikely to resign as there is no international pressure for him to do so. He worried that there is no clear solution as the situation worsens: “How much more boiling point can there be?”