PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AFP) — Haiti’s Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant on Saturday announced the suspension “until further notice” of an unpopular fuel price hike that triggered violent protests in the Caribbean nation.
The capital Port-au-Prince and its environs had stood paralysed since Friday afternoon, with major routes blocked by barricades, some made of burning tires, and some protesters even calling for a revolution in the impoverished country.
Just before the suspension was announced, the leader of Haiti’s lower house of parliament had threatened a government takeover if the fuel price increases were not reversed.
“If there is no response within two hours, the government will be considered as having resigned” and the legislature will take charge, Gary Bodeau, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, told AFP.
Lafontant then announced suspension of the price hike decision on Twitter, writing that “violence and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.”
At least one person died in violence overnight Friday, and an AFP reporter heard the sound of sporadic gunfire in the capital. Shop and car windows in some affluent districts were broken. Similar angry protests broke out in Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city, as well as in the communes of Les Cayes, Jacmel and Petit-Goave.
The troubles were sparked by a government announcement that gasoline prices would rise by 38 per cent, diesel by 47 per cent and kerosene by 51 per cent starting this weekend.
Many service stations suspended operations because station operators said they did not want to provide gas that could be used to set fires, or to be targeted by demonstrators. Angry protesters reportedly tried to torch at least one station before police intervened.
The protests prompted several major airlines, including American, Air France, Delta, Jet Blue and Copa, to cancel flights to Port-au-Prince, at least through mid-day Saturday.
The demonstrations drew an impassioned plea by Lafontant for calm.
“I ask your patience because our administration has a vision, a clear programme,” he said. “Do not destroy, because every time it’s Haiti that becomes poorer.”
“The country is under construction but if each time we destroy we will always lag behind.”
Haiti is still recovering from Hurricane Matthew which struck in 2016. Almost 40,000 people remain in makeshift camps after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people eight years ago, and thousands of others have died from a years-long cholera epidemic.
On Friday night the bodyguard of an opposition-party politician died in an altercation with demonstrators in central Port-au-Prince as he attempted to force a passage through a roadblock. His body was then burned in the road.
– Controversial subsidies –
The national police director pleaded urgently for calm.
“We understand your right to protest,” said Michel-Ange Gedeon. “But we do not understand the violence.”
At least two police stations and several police vehicles have been burned.
A framework signed in February between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Haiti implied the ending of subsidies for petroleum products, which are a major source of the budget deficit. But subsidies also help make fuel affordable in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, where most people live in extreme poverty, joblessness is widespread and the inflation rate has exceeded 13 percent for the past three years.
Arguing in support of the higher fuel prices earlier in the day, Lafontant said that between 2010 and 2018, government fuel subsidies had cost US$1 billion — an amount, he said, that “could have allowed us to build many kilometres (miles) of highway… many classrooms… many health clinics.”
Government officials also complain that the country has for years effectively been subsidizing people in the neighbouring Dominican Republic who drive across the border to take advantage of Haiti’s lower fuel prices.