Violent Outbreaks in Haiti as Fuel Prices Increase
The last three days have witnessed a violent outbreak of protests in Haiti after the government – led by President Moïse’s – announced a proposed increase in fuel prices. The situation rapidly escalated leading to three deaths across the country. Were such riots an unexpected outcome or had the security landscape in the country already been deteriorating in the past months?
The Outbreak of Riots
On Friday the 7th of July, the Haitian Government announced a rise in fuel prices ranging from 38% to 51% driving the price of petrol up to US$5 per gallon. In a country where approximately 80% of the population earns less than US$2 per day, the measure proved explosive. Nevertheless, it was not unexpected.
In February, the government agreed to reduce fuel subsidies in exchange for an assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, leading to a first rise in prices. Earlier in July, talks about further assistance from the IMF in exchange for even reduced government contirubtions began to emerge, leading to Friday`s prices increase proposal. Within few hours, protests and violent outbreaks in Haiti had escalated into full-scale riots. Starting from the capital Port-au-Prince and spreading towards the major urban centres – especially the socially unstable Southern areas – protesters took the streets, raising barricades and setting on fire rubbish, vehicles and buildings, private and public alike.
Arsonists set on fire sectors of a Coca Cola-licensed production factory, assaulted a Nissan cars reseller and besieged the Best Western and the Oasis Hotel in the capital, obliging its customers to find shelter in the inside. President Moïse’s neighbourhood was flooded with protesters, challenging the ability of the national police to contain the angry crowd. Soon after, the same night, protesters had created barricades in at least five other cities. In Petit-Gôave they set on fire the Court of Peace and stormed the local police station. Additionally, stores and major supermarkets in the urban areas fell victim to the violence in Haiti, targetted by both protestors and looters.
The Government Response
In an attempt to control the violent outbreaks in Haiti, both the President and the Prime Minister’s cabinet issued statements calling for calm and stressing the proposal nature of the measure. They declared that the policy’s discussion would be indefinitely stopped while the Parliament would explore other possibilities. President Moïse himself asked protesters to end the riots and to allow the government to elaborate new solutions. Nevertheless, calls for calm went unnoticed. Demonstrators across the capital violently asked for the executive’s resignation.
By Monday, 9th of July, the violence in Haiti was partially under control again. Following a combination of police interventions and accommodating official statements, the tensions seemed to decrease, and the protests were contained. The same day, a 48 hours nation-wide strike was launched. This is likely to further paralyse the country’s economic activity, but it also will decrease the violence of protesters and will allow authorities to secure the burnt public buildings and business activities to prevent further looting. Nevertheless, the situation is far from being solved and the strong tensions which only now emerged have in fact been permeating Haitian society for months.
Social Tensions in Previous Months
Although June did not report any protest-related incident, prior to the proposed fuel price increase in Haiti, the medium-term trends offer a more comprehensive picture of the situation in the country. Since February, the overall trend in Haiti has shown a sharp increase in protests and demonstrations, often turning in local riots which police forces were unable to control effectively. The first major outburst of social grievances occurred in Petit- Gôave in March, when a professors’ strike triggered three-weeks long students protests, with violent incidents involving rocks throwing against police forces and the arson of the Prosecutor’s office. Although the riot was eventually contained, in April and May tensions continued to rise and spread across the country. Consistently, the percentage of violent protests during the past months appeared to increase.
The increase in fuel prices was then merely an opportunity to express the underlying social grievances in the population. The tensions with the central government have been mounting in the past six months, fuelled by the unpopularity of the current IMF-sponsored policies, which appear to be worsening the economic situation of an already extremely poor nation.
The current challenges Haiti is facing are however not merely limited to the country, but increasingly appear to be a common issue of the entire Hispaniola island, shared with the Dominican Republic. Although Haiti’s bigger neighbour is relatively wealthier (with a GDP per capita of US$6,720 – nine times those of their Haitians counterparts) in the last three months it has nevertheless shown similar patterns of social unrest.
While at the beginning of the year the number of protests was limited in number and reach - and mostly directed against the presence of Haitian illegal migrants in the country – in June the Dominican Republic experienced a sharp increase in protest-related incidents. A pattern similar to the one which occurred in Haiti earlier in April and May, with protesters spread country-wide. These demonstrations are mostly triggered by the lack of appropriate infrastructures across the country and by the inefficiency of the central government to address them.
Presently, the protests in the Dominican Republic are unlikely to escalate to full riots as in Haiti, nevertheless the problem may exacerbate in the upcoming months, also fuelled by the tensions which Haiti is currently experiencing.
A Way Forward
As the summer hurricane season approaches the Caribbean, a cohesive and stable government is essential in Haiti to effectively address the eventual emergencies that the storms may generate in the island. For this reason, an accommodating government policy, combined with a strong police response to contain the riots, appears to be the only viable short-term solution to the challenge. However, such measure is unlikely to be effective in the longer term. The Haitian government needs to face its current social and economic challenges bargaining with the International Monetary Fund assistance packages which do not harm the fragile economic situation of its population, as to avoid triggering further violent outbreaks in Haiti.
Regarding the Dominican Republic, although the country is not currently at risk of governmentchallenging protests, measures should be implemented to avoid future escalations. The state should address social grievances in both its urban and rural areas, sponsoring the improvement of roads and electric supply infrastructures. Such policies would prove effective in two complementary ways. On the one hand, they will decrease tensions and protests. On the other, they will improve the Dominican Republic’s economic performances, creating a positive feedback system which will in turn further stabilize and reduce social grievances.