No word from Haiti’s president as fear paralyses capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 12 (NNN-AGENCIES) — Sporadic gunfire echoed through the streets of Port-au-Prince on Monday as the government remained silent in the face of protests that have paralyzed the Haitian capital and triggered rising violence.

The normally traffic-clogged streets were largely empty as schools, shops and municipal offices were shuttered for fear of more violence that has already left several people dead and an air of uncertainty hanging over the government of President Jovenel Moise.

Barricades have sprung up in some areas of the capital and other cities, as protesters have taken to the streets demanding the president step down over reports of mismanagement and possible embezzlement of development funds in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

After a quiet but tense start to the day, hundreds of youths from the capital’s poorer quarters marched toward Petionville, the wealthiest neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, throwing stones at houses until police opened fire with tear gas rounds to break up the march.

Police also thwarted an attempt to attack a bank during the demonstration, dragging away several blood-stained suspects and making five arrests.

Since the opposition organized widespread demonstrations last week to mark two years of Moise’s presidency, smaller and more spontaneous protests have broken out in key urban centers.

In some places, young men have erected barricades and seized bypassers for ransom, while vehicles have been torched, and shops damaged and looted, creating a climate of fear and intimidation alongside the opposition protests.

Meanwhile, Catholic bishops appealed to the “civic conscience of the different parties” to make a “patriotic decision.”

Demonstrators are demanding Moise quits over a scandal centering on the Petrocaribe fund, under which Venezuela supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms for years.

Investigations have shown that nearly $2 billion from the program were misused.

A mediation group composed of a senior UN official, the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany and the United States, and representatives of Spain, the EU and the Organization of American States, has called on Haiti’s politicians to enter dialogue over the crisis, lamenting the loss of life and damage caused by the protests.

The Haitian administration has remained mute in the face of rising unrest over the past five days, with only Eddy Jackson Alexis, the secretary of state for communication, issuing a brief statement on Twitter.

“The government recognizes the right of every person to demonstrate and exercise their rights according to the law, but looting shops, blocking streets, burning tires, smashing car windows or throwing oil on the road do not fall into that category,” he said.

While the government has offered no response to the demands of demonstrators, opposition groups have also failed to spell out any concrete solution to the crisis, beyond calling for the president to step aside.

After racking up a record budget deficit of 24 billion gourdes (US$306 million) in 2018, the government can no longer fund social welfare programs without slashing spending. — NNN-AGENCIES