Haiti: PM resigns as nationwide uprising erupts over fuel hikes

Issue 
Demonstrators surged into the streets of cities and towns around Haiti, erecting barricades, on July 6 when the Haitian government announced huge fuel price increases.

Haiti exploded in early July in a nationwide uprising whose Kreyòl watchwords are nou bouke — we are fed up.

Like a volcano, the explosion of anger and violence had built up over the past 17 months of President Jovenel Moïse’s rule, which has been characterised by corruption, waste, double-talk, repression and subservience to neoliberal dictates.

The spark was the slashing of fuel price subsidies mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for $96 million in “budget support”. As a result, the cost of gasoline rose 38%, diesel leapt 47%, and kerosene soared by more than 50%.

Economy and finance minister Jude Alix Patrick Salomon announced on March 8 that the fuel price hikes would take effect in July.

Public transport drivers’ unions and popular organisations protested, pointing to the deepening poverty of Haiti’s masses and their inability to pay public transport costs. “The country will be blocked if the state stubbornly insists on raising prices for petroleum products,” said Edva Dorismé, vice president of the Haiti’s Assembly of Tap-Tap Drivers (RCTH).

Jonel Merisier, the president of the Union of Drivers and Vehicle Owners of Mirebalais (SCPVM), said: “It is criminal on the part of the Haitian state to take such a measure, while there are other ways to find money without harming people”.

But culture and communication minister Guyler C. Delva insisted the hikes would go forward.

Perfect storm

Many Haitians are avid fans of the Brazilian national soccer team, and the government apparently had hoped that they would be distracted by the July 6 World Cup quarter final game between Brazil and Belgium. Just as the match was kicking off, it published the decree with the new prices to take effect the next day.

Government strategists apparently thought that Brazil would win the match and that the ensuing celebrations in Haiti would drown out any outrage over the price hikes.

Unfortunately for them, Brazil lost to Belgium and was eliminated from the World Cup. The resulting anger and disappointment over the loss dovetailed with the shock of finally seeing the new higher fuel prices, creating a perfect storm.

It was the last straw as months of frustration boiled over.

Faced with a 13% inflation rate and (officially) 14% unemployment, workers have been demonstrating for the minimum wage to be raised from $5.15 to $15.39 a day.

The government has spent millions on a pointless travelling carnival of political hoopla and promises called the “Caravan for Change,” generating resentment among Haitians with dwindling, poverty-stricken schools and hospitals.

Local and municipal governments are also cash-starved while Moïse’s regime spent millions more on resurrecting the traditionally-repressive Haitian army last November.

The government has also effectively blocked any investigation into where some $3.8 billion disappeared from the PetroCaribe fund, drawn from revenues from the sale of cheap Venezuelan petroleum products.

An unpopular budget drawn up last year taxes the poor and even expatriate Haitians, the government has wasted time and money on a still-born “national dialogue” initiative called the General States (États Généraux) and recently distributed 3000 large flat-screen TV sets to all senators and deputies for a rumoured cost of $14 million so that rural Haitians could supposedly watch the World Cup.

All the while, police forces have used brutal and sometimes lethal force against demonstrators, jails are severely overcrowded with mostly untried detainees, and kidnappings, robberies and “insécurité” (lawless atmosphere) are on the rise.

Days of rage

From July 6-10, angry demonstrators took to the streets, setting up barricades of burning tyres, cars and furniture. The ravine-lined road through Canapé-Vert was coated with slick oil, making it too dangerous to drive on.

Other areas around the capital of Port-au-Prince like Delmas, Lalue, Nazon, Champs-de-mars, Carrefour-Feuilles, Carrefour Fleuriot and Kenscoff were inaccessible. Demonstrators also filled the streets of several other cities such as Cap-Haitien, Petit-Goâve, Les Cayes, Jérémie and Jacmel, as well as towns in the Artibonite.

In the upscale neighbourhoods of Pétionville, car windshields and house windows were broken. Banks, warehouses, gas stations, hotels, car dealerships and supermarkets were targeted for destruction, burning and looting.

The court house in the town of Petit-Goâve was burnt down and the General Directorate of Taxes (DGI) almost suffered the same fate, with the building’s walls blackened by flames.

The government, through televised speeches, tweets and media releases tried to calm protesters with hollow, meaningless declarations calling for calm.

But protests grew. By the afternoon of July 7, Moïse had to make a televised speech, where he announced that the price hikes would be withdrawn. But it was too little, too late.

“There is no other alternative. He has to go,” professor Auguste “Gougousse” D’Meza, an educational and political consultant in Port-au-Prince, told the Miami Herald. “The people don’t believe in him anymore.”

A general strike that began on July 9 was successful nationwide, although people began to resume their activities by late July 10.

Sign of things to come

Already, many Haitian parliamentarians are calling for a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant’s government, which may be sacrificed in an attempt to save Moïse’s regime. Many representatives from Haiti’s capitalist class are also calling on Lafontant and his ministers to step down. [Lafontant resigned on July 14 – editor].

However, the target of the masses’ fury is not the prime minister but the president who selects him.

The “Core Group,” dominated by ambassadors from the United States, Canada and European nations, urged Haitians on July 10 to “respect constitutional order”. They also called on “national authorities to engage in deep and inclusive dialogue with all the other key actors of the country so as to restore calm, promote social cohesion, and assure the security of people and property.”

While the virulence of the popular demonstrations has clearly shaken Haiti’s rulers, the leaders of Haiti’s popular and democratic opposition sector are currently divided and weak. Without organisational infrastructure and a clear strategy, the uprising will likely subside in coming days — at least temporarily.

But the speed and strength with which the recent demonstrations developed make clear the fragility and volatility of Haiti’s political situation and augur more popular revolts in the days and weeks ahead.

[Abridged from Haiti Liberte.]

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