Haiti exploded over the weekend. Rioters took to the streets, ransacking everything in sight, burning cars in front of American hotels like the Westin, Marriott and the Oasis—a five-star hotel financed by the Clinton Foundation. They barricaded streets with burning tires and destroyed hundreds of businesses. “The entire population was trapped, forced to sleep where they worked, unable to reach their homes,” Hilda Baker, a business consultant, told The Daily Beast.
The chaos and panic, triggered by a potential dramatic rise in fuel prices, conjured images of the 1990s when Haitian “boat people” by the thousands fled toward the United States after a violent coup only to be turned around by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Clinton Administration refused them entry claiming they were “economic refugees,” even as Cuban refugees were granted political asylum. U.S. Marines, who had occupied the island from 1914 to 1934, landed again in Haiti.
Finally the Clinton administration backed down and allowed large numbers of Haitian refugees into the U.S. That is not likely to happen under the government of Donald Trump. Earlier this year he reportedly questioned why the U.S. would want immigrants from "shithole countries." But the consequences of bottled-up discontent on the island could get extremely ugly.
This is the first test for the Haitian government of President Jovenel Moise to prove it can handle civilian unrest on its own after the U.N. Peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, was withdrawn last October. The government did not fare well. The rampage paralyzed the capital, and the absence of Haiti’s National Police was glaring. “They were clearly absent,” Wilson Laleau, Moise’s chief of staff, told The Daily Beast.
“Since 1986, I’ve never seen it this bad in Haiti,” said Baker, the business consultant, as she thought back on the violent overthrow of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier that year at the end of a three-decade long family dictatorship.
Whether by coincidence or design, the government announced the dramatic price hikes on Friday just as many Haitians in the capital, Port-au-Prince, were watching World Cup soccer on giant screens placed around the city. People suddenly learned that gasoline, diesel and kerosene prices would go up from 38 to 51 percent. The mood would have been ugly in any case after Brazil lost to Belgium. Brazil was the Haitians’ favorite team in competition. Then news of the fuel price hikes lit the population on fire.
By late Saturday afternoon, President Moise had suspended the announced increases. Moise then addressed the nation on national television, a rarity for the limelight-shy president. He called on Haitians to stay calm, to “keep their heads together,” saying his administration worked day and night for the welfare of its citizens. “Everything I do is for you” said Moise, adding “sometimes bad decisions are made.”
But neither the price hikes nor the reaction were a surprise.
“What transpired was long in coming and everyone was aware,” presidential chief of staff Laleau told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview. For weeks, various radio shows and Haiti’s leading daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, had raised the specter of impending fuel price increases due to the elimination of a long-term subsidy policy.
“After the 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government decided to indefinitely freeze the price of gas at the pump, and every time there was a move to adjust it, the population revolted, and the government backed down,” said Laleau. “In the end, we were subsidizing the richest part of the population, they owned cars, generators and businesses. As well as the thousands of NGOs,” said Laleau. He estimated that only about 1.2 percent of the subsidies helped the poorest Haitians in any way.
Since 2008, Haiti had benefited from subsidized fuel under Venezuela’s PetroCaribe initiative, meant to extend the regional influence of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. But mismanagement, U.S. sanctions, the OAS’ unanimous condemnation and production at a historic low forced Venezuela to abandon the PetroCaribe initiative to combat its own dire financial crisis.
“We had to start purchasing oil on the free market,” said Laleau. “Since February the barrel went from $52 to $75.” But the government continued maintaining lower prices at the pump for fear of unrest.
Since coming to office, President Moise had been a vocal critic of the decades-long international aid to Haiti which he saw as a noose fostering dependence, not development. But without the Venezuelan aid, and facing a spiraling economic catastrophe, Moise had to agree to restore fuel prices to actual market levels, which international donors had long been suggesting and which the International Monetary Fund required if it was to renew an economic assistance package.
Haiti was already a tinderbox. Daily demonstrations by unions called for an increase in the minimum wage (from the current US $4.75/day to $15/day). The cost of living was staggering. Gasoline prices were already at $4 a gallon. With 70 percent of the population barely subsisting on under $3 a day, it was just a matter of time before it would rebel. So when Moise’s government announced its dramatic increases on Friday all hell broke loose.
“What the population doesn’t understand is that the hike is meant to affect those that have benefited most from the subsidies,” explained Laleau, “and the revenues from the increase will help us pay for much needed social services for the neediest.”
Perhaps, but if that is the case, the message either hasn’t gotten through to the street, or isn't believed. “Nowhere in the Caribbean is there this kind of chaos,” said Baker. “How are international investors going to view Haiti?” Just last June 20, ironically, an IMF delegation had given Haiti high marks, noting a 2.2 percent growth.
Laleau portrays the unrest as the result, as well, of President Moise’s campaign against corruption. “We had zombie checks: automatic payments to people in the administration that are not official, we cut all that out,” he said. The people whose interests were hurt then paid others to carry out the violence. “It’s not the population doing the destruction,” said Laleau, “it’s delinquents paid by those who oppose our policies.”
The truth of the matter is that the widespread ransacking over the weekend will cost Haitians thousands of jobs, and discontent runs much deeper than fuel prices.
On Monday morning, Haitians woke up to find a two-day general strike by the transportation union had taken hold. Streets were barren, but for a few burning autos downtown. An uneasy silence hung over the capital, Port-au-Prince. People were running out of food and water, but few ventured out to the pillaged markets.
Sadly, this is a story to be continued.