Wed | Feb 19, 2020

With government paralysed, rising crime terrifies Haitians

Published:Friday | February 14, 2020 | 12:20 AM
In this February 7, 2019 file photo, protesters demand the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise and to know how PetroCaribe funds have been used by the current and past administrations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise.
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP):

Thousands of young Haitians spent 2019 on the streets, demanding President Jovenel Moise resign over his government’s failure to prosecute years of unbridled corruption that siphoned billions in international aid into bank accounts overseas.

For now, Moise’s opponents have failed.

Haiti’s parliament shut down indefinitely in January because of the chaos, eliminating the check on presidential power that paralysed Moise for years. Thursday marks the president’s first month of ruling the country by decree.

But the reed-thin former banana farmer looks nothing like the strongmen of Haiti’s past. With weak political support at home and an international community wary of democratic backsliding, Moise has issued no significant decrees and billions in development aid is blocked.

Three years into his five-year term, the president appears barely able to enforce his will beyond the gates of the National Palace downtown and his relatively modest rented home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. In the city below, gangs rule entire neighbourhoods and a wave of kidnappings is terrifying ordinary Haitians.

“A few hundred feet from the National Palace, armed gangs control the streets,” said Paul Denis, who served as justice minister under President René Preval. “But the president who leads us, what is he doing? What is he doing to impose order, to render these bandits harmless? Absolutely nothing.”

The United States, United Nations and Organization of American States are trying to midwife a deal between Moise and his opposition that would lead to declaration of a unity government and avert a return to chaos on an island that’s seen two coups, US intervention, a UN peacekeeping mission and a devastating earthquake in the 34 years since the end of a decades-long dictatorship.

“The president of the republic has no power and the people demand everything from the president of the republic,” Moise, 51, lamented last week in an interview with The Associated Press. “The president is responsible for everything,”

In the vacuum, insecurity is growing.

Two years after the departure of UN peacekeepers, young bandits with automatic weapons randomly halt cars on the main routes in and out of the capital. The economy appears to be shrinking. Electricity comes only a few hours a day in most of the capital. Some police are protesting working conditions and demanding a union, which the government says would be illegal.

“The people have been thrown to their fate,” said Edel Berger, a slender 29-year-old apprentice lawyer who was walking to work in a suit Tuesday morning despite the 90-degree heat. “We’re all in danger. Every Haitian needs to buy a gun to protect themselves. It’s the law of the jungle.”

Along with the Canadian and French ambassadors, diplomats from the US, UN and Organization of American States are trying to persuade as many political players as possible to agree on an agenda for talks and sit down to negotiate.

“The US would really want to see forward movement here,” Ambassador Michele Sison told the AP. “Getting a political accord in place that would lead to a functioning government, to be able to move this country forward and restart, we would hope, economic growth, bring in a functioning government that could serve the people.”

Backed by the international community, Moise is demanding to stay in office until he can oversee the passage of a new constitution that strengthens the presidency and eliminate the ability of just a few opposition legislators to block virtually all laws and appointments.

Members of the moderate opposition say they are open to such a deal. The hard-line politicians who brought the country to a halt last fall demanding Moise’s immediate resignation are also talking about joining negotiations.

“The opposition has never rejected dialogue as a means of resolving the crisis,” said André Michel, a lawyer and hard-line opposition spokesman. “All of this should be on the table: When should the president leave power? Should the president leave power in three weeks, this week, in two months?”

Michel said the opposition’s non-negotiable demand was the release of about 150 opposition members jailed over the last year and the cancellation of arrest warrants for another 50 people.