Port-Au-Prince, November 22: After deadly weekend protests calling for his resignation, followed by a general strike, Haitian President Jovenel Moise emerged late Wednesday to reaffirm his legitimacy and appeal for calm in a televised address. The strike shut down most of Haiti on Wednesday as tension and uncertainty gripped the Caribbean country following the protests and Moise's unexplained absence from public view. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and is still battling to overcome a years-old cholera epidemic and the aftermath of a major earthquake, alongside political turmoil. "During my five-year presidency no one, I emphasise no one, whatever the pretext, can threaten the interests of the country or put the nation in danger," said Moise, in power since February 2017.
Making his first public comments since the weekend protests, Moise said dialogue must include all levels of society, and democracy "asks that the rules of the game be respected, according to the constitution." He gave his six-minute address surrounded by Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant, the ministers of interior and justice, and national police leaders. Moise had said nothing since Sunday's protests and was supposed to speak to the nation on Tuesday, but his appearance was dropped several hours after being announced, with no explanation given. Haiti Corruption Protests: 6 Killed, 5 Injured as Anti-Graft Agitation Turns Violent.
The breakdown in presidential communications was widely criticised on social media. Schools, shops and private businesses were closed in the main cities on Wednesday, in line with the opposition call for a general strike. As police patrolled otherwise empty main avenues in normally chaotic Port-au-Prince, burning barricades went up in some neighbourhoods and sporadic gun shots set residents on edge. "It's only when the streets are empty that politicians begin to see that there is a problem," lamented Alix Bernardin, 27, a resident of the capital. "Too much blood has flowed in the country. Jovenel has to go," he said.
At least three people were killed by gunfire during the mass protests over the weekend demanding Moise's resignation, the national police said. The opposition said 11 people lost their lives. "We can no longer live like this, frustrated, because we know how people live in other countries," said Haitian resident Jean Junior, 30, complaining that the people lack "potable water, hospitals, housing" while the president only makes "promises that he doesn't keep." In the upscale Petionville neighbourhood, the only two gas stations open were besieged by motorcycle taxi drivers desperate to refuel.
On Monday, the presidency released a brief statement with a picture of Moise and Ceant, surrounded by the heads of both chambers of parliament and the president of the supreme court of appeals. The statement said their meeting had three objectives: "that the executive pursue dialogue with all sectors of national life, resolve problems linked to insecurity, and intensify programs of social relief." Various opposition groups, arguing that the situation is out of control, have proposed ways to remove the president in order to resolve the crisis.
The protests were part of a sporadic movement that began during the summer over a scandal at the heart of a Venezuelan aid program known as Petrocaribe. Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela for years supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms. But investigations by the Haitian Senate in 2016 and 2017 concluded that nearly USD 2 billion from the program was misused. A dozen of Haiti's former cabinet ministers -- all members of the current ruling party -- have been implicated but no legal proceedings have followed, sparking public anger. Moise is seen as blocking any court action over the scandal.