PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The poor are now targeting the poor in Haiti. Many are afraid of leaving their homes, buying groceries or paying for a bus ticket – acts that can draw the attention of gangs to kidnap anyone with cash, no matter how small.
Many schools closed their doors this month, not because of Covid-19, but to protect students and teachers from the kidnapping epidemic for ransom that began the nation a year ago. No one was spared: neither the nuns, the priests, or the children of the reluctant street vendors. Students now organize fundraising to raise ransoms for free schoolmates.
Their difficulties can only get worse as Haiti is heading towards a constitutional crisis.
The opposition has demanded that President Jovenel Moïse step down, saying his five-year term ended on Sunday. But the president refuses to step down, arguing that the caretaker government has taken the first year of his five-year term.
In a defiant, one-hour speech on Sunday, Mr. Moïse cast contempt on his slanderers.
“I am not a dictator,” Mr. Moïse said. “My term ends on February 7, 2022.”
As tensions rose on Sunday, the government announced the arrest of more than 20 people, claiming they were involved in a conspiracy to overthrow and assassinate the president. Those detained – on charges the opposition said were fabricated – include a Supreme Court judge and one of Haiti’s police inspectors general.
After years of suffering from hunger, poverty and daily power cuts, Haitians say their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is in the worst condition they have seen and the government is unable to provide the most basic services.
Many fear that current political tensions will only exacerbate the country’s paralysis and mismanagement. By Sunday afternoon, clashes had erupted between protesters and police in three different cities across the country.
Haiti is “on the verge of an explosion,” a collection of Roman Catholic bishops in the country said late last month.
Over the weekend, the Haitian judicial branch sided with the opposition, a diverse group of activists, politicians and religious leaders, and ruled that Mr Moïse’s term ended on Sunday.
On Friday, the United States government sided with Mr. Moïse – an important prospect for many Haitians, who are often looking for a bigger neighbor for guidance on which direction the winds are blowing.
State Department spokesman Ned Price backed Mr Moïse’s argument that his term would end next February, adding that only then “should the newly elected president succeed President Moïse”.
But Mr. Price also sent a warning to Mr. Moïse to postpone the election and make a decision.
“The Haitian people deserve the opportunity to elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions,” Mr Price added.
Mr Moïse has led a presidential decree since last year, following the suspension of two-thirds of the Senate, the entire lower house of deputies and every mayor across the country. Haiti now has only 11 elected officials representing its 11 million people, and Mr Moïse has refused to hold any elections for the past four years.
Mr Moïse is seeking to expand his presidential powers in the coming months by changing the country’s constitution. A referendum on the new Constitution is scheduled for April, and the opposition fears the vote will not be free or fair and will only encourage its upward authoritarian tendencies, claims that Mr. Moïse denies.
André Michel, 44, leader of the opposition coalition, the Democratic and Popular Sector, has vowed that if the president does not step down, the opposition will launch more protests and enter into civil disobedience.
“There is no debate,” he said. “His term is over.”
The opposition hopes to use the discontent of millions of unemployed Haitians – more than 60 percent of the country lives in poverty – to spur protests that have often become violent in the past and shut down large parts of the country.
Although the president has never been weaker – hidden inside the presidential palace, he cannot move freely even in the capital – observers say he has a good chance of staying at work. The weak and weak opposition is struggling with fighting and cannot agree on how to remove Mr. Moïse from power or with whom to replace him.
Political uncertainty sowed fear, fearing that street demonstrations in the coming days would turn violent and take the country into a long period of unrest.
Fatigue, a 57-year-old driver who would only give his middle name for fear of retaliation, said his daughter was abducted from a street in the capital, Port-au-Prince, last month. He now keeps his three children at home and prevents them from attending school.
“People must have confidence in the state,” Zamor said, adding that the government was “filled with kidnappers and gang members.”
Prior to the kidnapping epidemic, Haitians were able to listen to music with their neighbors on the street, play dominoes, go to the beach, and communicate with friends and neighbors about their economic despair. But now the fear of kidnapping is flooding the streets, disrupting daily activities.
“The regime has transferred power to the bandits,” said Pierre Espérance, 57, a leading human rights activist.
“The country is now gangsterized – what we live in is worse than during the dictatorship,” he said, referring to the brutal autocratic rule of the Duvalier family that lasted for almost 30 years, until 1986.
Haitians suspect that the expansion of gangs in the last two years has been supported by Mr. Moïse to quell any disagreement. Initially, gangs attacked opposition neighborhoods and attacked protests demanding better living conditions. But gangs may have grown into taming and now seem to be operating everywhere.
It was imposed by the United States Department of the Treasury in December sanctions against Mr. Moïse’s close allies – including the former director general of the interior ministry – for providing political protection and weapons to gangs targeting opposition areas.
Sanctions highlighted a five-day attack last May that terrorized a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The Treasury Department said gang members, with the cover and support of government officials, raped women and set houses on fire.
The government denies providing support to any gang.
Tourism has stalled, and the vast Haitian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere is shying away from the country.
“Things are getting harder and harder with the arrival of Jovenelo Moïse,” said Marvens Pierre, 28, a craftsman trying to sell souvenirs in a public square in the capital.
He entrusted his two small children to his mother because she received remittances from abroad and could afford to feed them. He said it was hard for him to sell his products.
“I can easily spend two weeks without being able to sell my stuff,” Mr. Pierre lamented. “I had to ask a neighbor for bath soap this morning.”
Harold Isaac and Andre Paultre reported from Port-au-Prince in Haiti and Maria Abi-Habib from Mexico City. Kirk Semple contributed to reporting from Mexico City.