The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles says ordinary Haitians continue to suffer as the country is gripped by protests demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.
SPEAKER: We have voted for Jovenel, but we do not agree with him, his policy. Then he has to go. Today we are all here. We come from Solino, Base 47, Cite Soleil. Although the police are shooting, we’re not afraid of anything. We’re sure that we will do what we have to do.
JAISAL NOOR: At least four have been killed as anti-government protests continued in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on Monday. Many Haitians are demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise. The government has responded with a violent crackdown. Two journalists were shot during the protests. This is one of the protesters who took to the streets on Monday.
SPEAKER 2: The people are fighting, and they–the government–are repressing it. The town is on the street to dismiss Jovenel. To expel Jovenel means a solution to hunger. To dismiss Jovenel means a solution to the murders in the popular neighborhoods as we see it in La Saline, Tokyo, Grand Ravine, and Fort Nacional. Being on the street is a political battle against the system.
JAISAL NOOR: Many Haitians have called for Moise to stand down after what they describe as a failure to address Haiti’s myriad of problems like widespread food and fuel shortages, a weakening currency, double digit inflation, and graft accusations lodged against public officials which have crippled the impoverished Caribbean nation. Protestors also burned at least a couple of cars, including a police car, in the latest round of civil unrest.
Now joining us to discuss this is Jacqueline Charles, who’s reported on Haiti and the English speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded the 2018 Maria Moore’s Cabot Prize, the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas. Thank you so much for joining us.
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thank you for having me.
JAISAL NOOR: So give us the latest from the ground. The president is in hiding. It doesn’t seem like there’s any relief for the poor in sight. They’re suffering from economic crisis, food and fuel shortages. And this is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Well, Haiti is having a very difficult time these days, and Haitians definitely. As you mentioned, double-digit inflation, which is nearly at 20%, chronic fuel shortages on top of food shortages, rising costs. And basically, you’ve had more than a year of protests where both the opposition and also individuals on the streets have been asking for President Moise to resign from office. Basically, their position is that there is inept governance; he has been missing in action.
The population heard from him during a prerecorded 2:00 AM address on the 25 of September, but prior to that he had not been seen or heard from in public for over a month. It was a 15 minute address. He told the opposition that he was ready to have a dialogue with them. But the international community had basically spent more than a year asking president Moise to come to the table and to have negotiations. And what the opposition is saying today is that it is too little, too late. And they are vowing to keep the streets hot, to keep the country barricaded, on lockdown until presidential Moise steps down.
JAISAL NOOR: And when we were talking off camera, you were saying that at least Port-au-Prince is calm today. And so, the protesters are sort of figuring out their tactics. Because while they want to keep this pressure on, they have to realize that or they have to consider the fact that people still need to go about their daily lives and get food and fuel, whatever they can find.
JACQUELINE CHARLES: I have to tell you; by my estimation, the country’s been locked down for about five weeks. I mean, it started with a fuel shortage that basically ran into four weeks. And then, just when the fuel arrived and people were about to get some relief, we had this incident on Monday where the supporters of the president and the Senate were attempting [inaudible] his latest choice for prime minister. That ended in chaos with a journalist–a colleague of mine who works with the Associated Press–basically getting shot in the crossfire; him and a security guard. Right there you had spontaneous protests. People took to the streets of Port-au-Prince.
And then two days later when president Moise issued his address to the nation, the population gave him their response, and they lit the streets up again. These protests had been very violent, had been very aggressive. And as you heard in your clips there, people are saying that it’s hunger, it’s ineptness; they’re not getting any relief. And this idea of corruption and scandal after scandal; even for Haitians who are used to it, the threshold has just had enough.
JAISAL NOOR: And so some of the roots of this latest protest go come back from the fallout of corruption and mismanagement of Venezuela’s oil subsidy program and a plan to end that. And so, can you explain that a little bit? Because the intention was to help fight climate change by ending fuel subsidies. But what was not calculated is how much the poor in Haiti depend on these fuel subsidies. Can you explain what happened there?
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Yeah. So Haiti–like a number of Caribbean and Central American countries that are part of the Petrocaribe program with Venezuela–basically instead of paying up front for fuel, they were allowed to pay their fuel bill over 25 years at a 1% interest rate. So let’s say the million dollars that I was supposed to spend on fuel for this year; instead of giving it to Venezuela, I’ll have that money to invest it in social programs to help alleviate the suffering of the poor. Where, according to a court of auditors in Haiti, $2 billion of this at least have been embezzled. And the current president is accused of receiving millions of dollars in bogus government contracts for road projects that were never completed prior to him running for office, and so he was implicated in this corruptions scandal. And when that came out on May 31, that just lit up another round of violent protests.
But prior to this–let’s remember–last July, again as Haiti is no longer receiving fuel from Venezuela, it’s getting a fuel bill that’s rising. And the government provides subsidies. And the government is saying, “Listen, we’ve got a $2 billion budget for our country, basically 11 million people, we can’t afford this. So we need to raise fuel prices by removing these subsidies.” In addition, they were under a lot of pressure from the international community. But the way they did it was just sloppy and haphazard. They did it during a World Cup game with Brazil, when they thought that people would have been distracted. And as soon as that game was over and the population realizes what the government has done, they took to the streets, they barricaded, they put tires on fire. I mean, throughout the country it was on lockdown and we had three days basically rioting. International flights were canceled, and that was the first of several lockdowns.
Come now to September; we are in week three and four fuel shortages, long lines. And the country has a fuel bill of $130 million. And this has been a chronic problem. Blackout, no fuel to go anywhere. Myself, I was caught in this. You can’t go very far because you don’t know if you’re going to find fuel. And the irony is in the country, because the gas station owners do not know when fuel is going to arrive, they are being very careful in terms of opening their stations. So you’re seeing people walking around or standing in line with these yellow jugs just basically looking for fuel or waiting for fuel. And even when the government gets fuel, then after a while there’s no fuel. So again, Haiti has not been able to make the adjustment post-Venezuela Petrocaribe, in terms of how do you get fuel into this country and basically pay your fuel debt.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, finally, it’s sort of impossible to talk about Haiti without talking about the history. And you know, it goes back to being the first successful slave revolt, the first successful worker revolt. And you know, many argue Haiti’s been punished to this day for defying Europe and America in abolishing slavery and throwing off the yoke of colonialism. And even more recently, there’s been Western influence and interference in elections. And we’re about to mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake; Haiti’s still rebuilding from that. Talk a little bit about the role the West continues to play in Haiti, continuing to support the current government. And have alternatives been put forth by the opposition to sort of have different policies besides the austerity that you’ve just described?
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Well, when you talk to Haitians on the ground, they will tell you that the root of this crisis isn’t just the corruption allegations of mismanagement of the economy by president Jovenel Moise, but it dates to the elections. And not just the 2015 elections, but the 2010 elections after the earthquake when the international community–led by the United States–decided, or concluded, that there was fraud. So they kicked out the second candidate and they put in president Michel Martelly. Sort of they went from left to right and we have seen a number of issues since then. Again, in 2015 when president Martelly handpicks successors, Jovenel Moise ran for office, those elections also were problematic. We went into a transition and then they had new elections, but president Jovenel Moise has not had it easy neither as a candidate nor since he’s come into office.
I mean, the opposition really has not given him much breathing room. But he also has not done a lot to say, “Hey, you know what? Let’s have a real coalition government.” You cannot rule this country or govern this country without bringing in the traditional opposition, regardless of how you think of them. Today we were talking about Venezuela. I mean, Haiti decided after years of showing loyalty to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez and Maduro, that it broke with Maduro and excited with the United States in regard to the question of Maduro and whether or not he was legitimate. And so, along with the United States they decided to acknowledge Guiado. And that is continuing to play here in the backdrop. because of that decision by Haiti, President Jovenel Moise does enjoy support from the United States, which hasn’t really been paying much attention, at least from the State Department and the Trump Administration. They haven’t really been paying attention to this crisis.
But psychologically on the ground, even among those who are battling him, the question is where does the U.S. stand? Just yesterday, there was a meeting between the opposition and the U.S. ambassador, as well as the representative for the United Nations, France, Canada, and other countries there. The meeting was not a very good meeting. I mean, it was very strained. The international community is very clear on their position. They want the opposition to go to the table to negotiate, to have dialogue. The opposition meanwhile is saying no, they are not going to do it. But the foreign community, known as the core group, they’re not letting up. So the question now is going to be whether or not the opposition is going to crack under this foreign pressure, this Western pressure. But you know, they also have to come up with a plan to understand the international community. You don’t want chaos.
You have a situation now where yes, the president may not be present, he might be missing in action, there are issues of the economy and governance, but at least I know what I have. Right now the constitution of Haiti does not provide for what happens next if president Jovenel Moise resigns. He currently has no legitimate prime minister. And under the constitution, if a president were to leave before his final year in office, it’s supposed to be the prime minister who steps in. But because there is no legal prime minister, there is nobody to step in. So either way; President Jovenel stays, President Jovenel leaves, you’re looking at chaos. I don’t know what the answer is. But you know, everybody says that it’s for the Haitian people to decide.
JAISAL NOOR: Well, we want to thank you so much for that insight and for all your reporting. We’ll link to it at TheRealNews.com and we’ll keep following this very important story. You know, Haiti is a very important place. The people of Haiti have suffered so much because of decisions that they’ve had no role in. And so, we’ll definitely keep an eye on things there. Thank you so much for joining us.
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thank you for having me.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.