On Tuesday, in a crescendo of popular anger, Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s provincial towns’ weeklong protests against the de facto government and its policies escalated at a dizzying pace. In preparation for the day’s protests, enormous barricades constructed of building materials, tin roofing, heavy iron gates, and a variety of junked vehicles were erected at important intersections in the capital during the darkness of the previous night. The capital’s population woke to these architectural blockades—interspersed with burning tires and piles of rocks. Hundreds of demonstrators emerged into the morning streets, although warned by news alerts that it might well be dangerous, to protest against gas shortages and soaring prices, the punitive rise in the cost of living, brutal gang violence, and the continued rule of the man presiding over the intensifying crisis, the country’s de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry.
Motorized traffic in the capital was brought to a near complete halt. The headquarters of the corruption-plagued National Insurance Office was burned as police officers watched alongside demonstrators. One protester was killed when the group’s security personnel opened fire. Barricades had been built everywhere, including in wealthier parts of the city that are usually spared street protest.
“You can only call this a full-fledged insurrection,” Monique Clesca, a former United Nations official who is a leader of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, told me. “The anger is palpable.”
Two days earlier, the usually silent Henry gave a passive, heartless, and long speech in which the announcement that he intends to raise the already unaffordable price of gasoline dwarfed the rest of what he had to say and ignited the intensification of the past week’s nationwide protest. Especially irritating to Haitians was his statement that he hadn’t spoken to the Haitian people about the country’s problems “because I’ve been working.”
Henry became de facto prime minister in July, 2021, in the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, a crime that, to date, remains unsolved. His statement to the Haitian people was aired on Sunday (September 11). It is the only formal statement he has made in recent memory, although every day of his rule has led to further privation, scarcity, and insecurity for the people of Haiti. During that time, the United States and Haiti’s “friends” in the international community have supported Henry’s continuation in office—in spite of the fact that Clesca’s Haitian Solution commission, which is associated with a broad coalition called the Montana Accord, has been offering a respectable civil-society and grassroots alternative to Henry the entire time.
The current crisis is related to the PetroCaribe scandal that bubbled through the regimes of both Jovenel Moise and his predecessor in office, Michel Martelly. That scandal was about the disappearance of around $2 billion that Haiti had received under the auspices of the 2006 PetroCaribe agreement with Venezuela (then under the rule of the late president Hugo Chávez), which allowed Haiti (then under the administration of the late, progressive president René Préval) to defer payment for Venezuelan oil for as many as 25 years, much to the irritation of the US government, which considered Chávez an enemy and Haiti an ally. The money thus saved was supposed to be directed to developing social programs to better the lives of average Haitians. Instead, the reserves disappeared, no social programs were ever seriously instituted, and Haiti now owes Venezuela billions in deferred payments. When the theft was revealed and attributed largely to politicians in the Moise and Martelly cohort, huge protests broke out, and the country was brought to a complete commercial halt that was nicknamed PeyiLok, or “Country Lockdown,” and is being compared to today’s protests.
Gasoline and its cost and distribution have been at the heart of the rapidly degrading Haitian scene this time around as well. Several times, the gangs for which Haiti has become notorious have taken over the international gas depot at Varreux, where fuel enters the country. They’ve stopped gas from getting out to gas stations in the capital and provinces, and they’ve cut off parts of the country from one another by controlling the transport of gas. Gas shortages have been frequent, with violent fights breaking out among those waiting in line.
Haiti’s bigger gangs aren’t stupid criminals. They are brutal but canny operators who understood quickly not only the obvious point that gas makes things go but also that control of fuel gives you power, and money, especially as the price of gas is rising at top speed. They understood also that they had amassed enough arms and men to act on this, and that no one would stop them.
In the past weeks, with Varreux again functional, various gangs have moved on gas stations in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere and shut them down, taking the fuel to sell on the streets for wallet-gauging prices in a vast black-market network. Gas station owners have been threatened and injured. The police, who have shown some energy recently after years of inaction, are still incapable of any kind of real control over the gangs. It is widely accepted that the major gangs have political affiliations and connections to Haiti’s business and political class. Thus they can be used to destabilize governments, or to enrich certain business sectors or promote certain factions by undermining others.
Especially harmed by the shortages, capricious supply, and soaring prices of gasoline at the pump and now in the streets have been Haiti’s mototaxi drivers, who are responsible for most of the personal motorized traffic around the country, often carrying several passengers as well as all sorts of goods in baskets, valises, and plastic bags on their small, mostly Chinese-made bikes. When they are unable to work, the basis of the local economy is undermined. Yesterday, a massive protest by these taxi drivers joined the demonstrations, and sped up to and through the Place St. Pierre in Petionville, a wealthy community up the hill from Port-au-Prince, accompanied by hundreds of pedestrian protesters.
For the vast majority of Haitians who would simply like to live their lives, it’s been a very tough time. A handwritten placard in one of the recent demonstrations read, with great pathos: nou vle viv tankou tout moun. (“We want to live like everyone else.”) But they can’t. In my whole lifetime of going to and from Haiti, for more than 30 years, most Haitians have never been able to “live like everyone else” because their economy has been robbed and depleted and sapped by the international community and by their own rapacious leaders enabled by that community.
Now, the gangs are an added element. Even yesterday (September 13), amid all the protests and a brief rainstorm, the bandits, as gang members are called in the Haitian media, managed to try to kidnap a telecommunications company employee near the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince. She resisted the attempt, apparently, and was killed. The would-be kidnappers absconded with the body, and have reportedly demanded a $100,000 ransom from her family for the cadaver.
Most Haitians today recall that in 1985-86, they or their parents protested and demonstrated until the old Duvalier dictatorship fell, and Haitians are hoping they can bring down the government of Henry by the same means. But the difference between the Duvalier ouster and the popular attempt to unseat Henry is that in the former case, the United States had finally decided it was time for Jean-Claude Duvalier to go and worked behind the scenes to get it done. In the present case, Washington, with its usual tragic combination of a lack of vision for Haiti and a refusal to acknowledge responsibility, has remained staunchly behind the vastly unpopular Henry.
As ever, the country that claims the mantle of democracy is terrified of anything that smells democratic, for example the Commission for a Haitian Solution’s Montana Accord, backed by scores of popular organizations, agricultural communes, labor unions, some segments of the private sector, various political factions, health workers, artists, grassroots organizations, shantytown associations, student groups, and human rights organizations—all working together for a Haitian solution to the downward spiraling situation. Apparently, the United States just can’t wrap its mind around something that includes so many people and groups and therefore might not be susceptible to influence and control. US officials have said that they support a Haitian solution to the crisis—but don’t seem to want to support the Haitian Solution to the Crisis. The State Department clearly thinks a “Haitian solution” looks more like Ariel Henry, a de facto official supported by Washington, untroubled by the ballot, hugely unpopular, useless, supine, and negligent, and ruling without anything that could qualify as a functioning legislature or judiciary. That, apparently, is what “Haitian” must look like to the Biden administration.
Last week, Henry went off to Miami in the midst of all the protests; many hoped he was fleeing the country, about to resign. But no! He came back two days later and reportedly had to have more than 35 cars at the airport to assure his security on the road back to town. This is in a country, again, where gas is now so expensive that hardly anyone can buy it. Then he proceeded to give that speech about the price of gas that fired up thousands of protesters. The Haitian rumor mill says that for his entire time in office, the de facto prime minister has not slept at home, fearing for his life.
Today, writing this, I went to look at a painting of mine by the great Haitian utopian artist Préfète Duffaut. It was given to me by a friend years ago and was painted in 1987, a year of great promise for Haiti, before the supposed democratic experiment went off the rails, a year after the fall of the dictatorial Duvalier dynasty. It depicts an imaginary coastal city, obviously a Haitian city, that’s based loosely on Duffaut’s hometown, Jacmel, on the southern coast. Most of Duffaut’s paintings depict a similar scene. In the painting, the sparkling city embraces the sparkling sea, and all the residents of the town are out on its broad esplanades, just walking. It could be a holiday. There must be hundreds of tiny Haitians depicted in this painting, all wearing broad hats to protect them from what must be a bright sun, though the sun’s not in the picture. Sailboats are sailing on the sea, and in the middle of the water, which is the middle of the painting, is a great circle like a mirror that reflects back at the viewer (and at the town) the town’s own image, and the frame of the mirror is made up of another crowd of people happily circumambulating in a gravity-defying parade. It’s the way the great visionary painter saw his country: a Haiti pristinely maintained, an island filled with proud Haitians, out in the streets, enjoying their ownership of their land, glad to see themselves in the mirror.
It has been something like that, but it’s not like that now.