Haiti president tells protesters 'go home' after fuel hike suspended

by Amelie BARON
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Haitian Police arrive at a looted shop in the commune of Petionville during protests against an increase in fuel prices, which the government has suspended

Haiti's President Jovenel Moise called on protesters late Saturday to "go home" after the suspension of a fuel price hike that triggered violent protests and left at least two dead in the Caribbean nation.

In an address broadcast on state television, Moise said he had "corrected what had to be corrected" following an about-face on the price increases earlier that day.

"As soon as you speak, I listen. Because you started sending me this message last night, I received it and corrected what had to be corrected," Moise said.

"To those watching me tonight, I ask you all: go home," he said, adding authorities had been directed to clean the streets.

The capital Port-au-Prince and its environs have stood paralyzed 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.

They had only been announced on Friday, while many Haitians were engrossed in a World Cup football match.

"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.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant then announced on Twitter suspension of the price increases, writing that "violence and democracy are fundamentally incompatible."

Even before the fuel price controversy, deputies had already begun a debate on his future, and Saturday's U-turn could lead to the government's fall.

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 get through a roadblock. His body was then burned in the road.

On Saturday afternoon, an AFP journalist saw a young man shot dead.

A supermarket and other businesses were looted and vehicles burned, mainly in the wealthy areas of Petionville.

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.

Internet service suffered difficulties, although it was unclear whether there was a link to the unrest.

"We're seeing a little bit more calm right now," an American, Stacy Librandi Bourne, told CNN from Port-au-Prince where, the news network said, she was among 50 American tourists, children and missionaries unable to leave the Oasis Hotel because of the unrest.

- 'Do not destroy' -

The troubles were sparked by a government announcement that gasoline prices would rise by 38 percent, diesel by 47 percent and kerosene by 51 percent starting this weekend.

Protests prompted several major airlines, including American, Air France, Delta, Jet Blue and Copa, to cancel flights to Port-au-Prince, at least through midday Saturday.

"I ask your patience because our administration has a vision, a clear program," Lafontant, a doctor by profession and political novice, had appealed hours before the suspension.

"Do not destroy, because every time it's Haiti that becomes poorer."

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.

- Controversial subsidies -

The national police director also 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 were 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 $1 billion. That amount, he said, "could have allowed us to build many kilometers (miles) of highway... many classrooms... many health clinics."

Haitian Police arrive at a looted shop in the commune of Petionville during protests against an increase in fuel prices, which the government has suspended

Protesters move tires to barricade a street in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petion-Ville to protest an increase in fuel prices, which the government later suspended

People carry loot from a shop in the commune of Petionville during protests against an increase in fuel prices, which the government has suspended