The announcement came on a Friday afternoon, late in the second half of the World Cup quarterfinal match between Belgium and Brazil, the national team adopted by most Haitian soccer fans. Minutes later, Brazil had lost the match. And soon after, thousands of Haitians were in the streets, though not because of the game’s disappointing result.
The government stated it would be eliminating fuel subsidies, sending the price of gasoline soaring by 38 percent overnight, to $4.50 a gallon. Kerosene, heavily relied upon by the country’s poorest citizens, would increase by 51 percent, to almost $4 a gallon. If the thought was that most Haitians would be distracted by soccer, the plan failed.
The government had agreed to end the subsidies months earlier as part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “The people were waiting for that decision,” a law-enforcement source explained, “and everyone in each area was prepared to react.”
Though fuel subsidies predominantly benefit the wealthy, any increase in the cost of living can be catastrophic in a country where 60 percent of the population scrapes by on less than $2.40 a day. Protesters built roadblocks and burned tires throughout the capital, Port-au-Prince, and soon demonstrations had broken out across the country. By Saturday morning the situation had worsened. An uprising had begun.
Protesters appeared to target hotels catering to the international market and a supermarket owned by one of Haiti’s richest families. But just as the country’s economic malaise has hit the middle class, so too did the protests; overall some 80 businesses of all sizes were damaged. International airlines canceled flights to Haiti, while some of the wealthy boarded helicopters or private jets and fled the country. As many as 20 people were killed, and more than 50 arrested.
Less than 24 hours after the initial announcement, the government walked back the price increase. And a week later, on July 14, Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant was forced to resign rather than succumb to an embarrassing no-confidence vote in Parliament. But the aftershocks of that initial decision have continued to reverberate and have exposed fault lines that continue to threaten Haiti’s democracy.
President Jovenel Moïse, who took office in February 2017, now finds himself alone atop the government, but he faces the stiffest test of his presidency.
An agricultural entrepreneur from rural Haiti, Moïse was put forward as the candidate who could feed a hungry nation. And he came to office with lofty promises of food security, paved roads, electricity across the country, and a crackdown on corruption. After the election, Moïse likened his own victory to that of another businessman turned president: Donald Trump. “President Trump and I are entrepreneurs, and all an entrepreneur wants is results,” he said at the time.