A peaceful march to protest against the reinstatement of a dictatorship in Haiti and demand the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse ended in violence Sunday with at least one dead, several journalists injured and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets onto crowds in the country’s capital.
Billows of black smoke from burning vehicle and tires, used to barricade streets, were observed in the hills above Port-au-Prince, in the latest clashes marking Haiti’s political crisis over the disputed term of Moïse. Protesters have accused the leader of illegally remaining in office because his term, according to the constitution, ended Feb. 7. Moïse disagrees and said he still has until February 2022. The U.S., United Nations and the Organization of American States’ secretary general support his claim.
In Port-au-Prince, the demonstration began shortly after 11 a.m. at Constitutional Place near the National Palace, and initially moved peacefully through the capital. But three hours later, protesters were forced to seek cover in nearby businesses and street corridors to avoid the toxic fumes of police tear gas and rubber bullets as they tried to deliver their message in front of the office of the U.N. and OAS.
Local radio journalists on the scene reported in some instances, police were unprovoked when they opened fire, and in other instances, they were responding to rock-throwing militants. At least two journalists were injured after being hit with rubber bullets, Radio Zenith said.
The radio’s hosts also reported the death of an unidentified individual in the Delmas 95 neighborhood after his corpse was set on fire with a motorcycle on top by unidentified individuals.
“None of it was necessary,” said Gédéon Jean, a human rights activist who was among the organizers of the protest. “There were a lot, a lot of people who took to the streets.”
The protest is part of an ongoing standoff between Moïse and his detractors who say his use of executive powers is igniting fears that he wants to return Haiti to a dictatorship. Moïse has been ruling by decree for more than a year after dismissing most of Parliament in January of last year and all of the country’s elected mayors. He has also issued a slew of decrees strengthening the power of his presidency.
Last weekend, after the opposition failed to get him to step down, Moïse announced the arrest of 23 people including a Supreme Court judge in an alleged coup and assassination plot. The arrests, followed by several other worrying moves that experts say are unconstitutional, led to thousands of Haitians taking to the streets Sunday in Port-au-Prince and other cities.
Jean, who put the crowd in the tens of thousands, said everyone could see that people came out “ to the streets to say they do not agree with the dictatorship that Jovenel has put in place in the country; to say the country’s constitution needs to be respected and to tell the international community, they do not agree with them supporting Jovenel Moïse.”
This is why, he said, the protest’s route included stops in front of the OAS’s office in Pétion-Ville and the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti in nearby Juvenat.
Jean, who traveled by motorcycle to meet protesters at the head of the march, to show them where to turn, said trouble started brewing early. Three Nissan Patrol vehicles with heavily armed police officers were planted inside the crowd and followed protesters as they moved throughout the capital, he said.
“No matter what they did, the population refused to be provoked, they didn’t throw rocks at them,” said Jean, 41.
Once marchers arrived in Pétion-Ville, however, events turned. After meeting an initial group in front of the building where the OAS’ office is located, Jean said he headed back down Canape Vert to go greet protesters as they turn the demonstration around to come meet him in front of the the offices of the U.N. mission, which is known by its French acronym BINUH.
“There were a lot of police cars there, and a water truck,” Jean said. Soon, he was joined by the Nissan Patrols, which, he said, began firing tear gas and shots. “I had two people with me who grabbed me and ran with me,” he said.
“It was a march where you had tens of thousands of people who responded to the call to say, ‘We are not interested in a dictatorship,’ to denounce BINUH and the OAS, which are supporting Jovenel Moise,” Jean said. “They put a Nissan Patrol and [another vehicle] in the crowd.”
Further up the hill in Pétion-Ville, police also were firing tear gas, this time at the crowds near the OAS office.
Sunday’s protest was billed as a peaceful demonstration for democracy by civil society and opposition groups, and everyday Haitians as well as notable personalities in the field of human rights and journalism.
They decided to come out, they said, to denounce what they consider to be worrying signs that Moïse wants to reinstate a dictatorship in Haiti 35 years after the country ousted its last dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and ended he and his father’s nearly 30 year reign of terror that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and caused many more to flee.
Moïse, who came into office in 2017 after a process marked by fraud and violent unrest, has said he is not a dictator. While his detractors protested his autocratic tendencies Sunday and demanded his ouster, he was attending the country’s National Carnival in Port-de-Paix, a city in the northwest.
Nenel Cassy, a former senator whose detention by police at an opposition protest last month triggered street protests, said Haitians have to take their destiny in their hands.
“This battle demands determination, it demands engagement,” he said soon after the march began.
Draped in the Haitian flag, and waving miniature versions of it as they protested, the mostly mask-less crowd began in a festive mood. As they walked through the capital, they sang “Send Jovenel away” and beat drums. To make their point, some wore red T-shirts with the phrase, “Esklav Revolte” in Creole or “Revolting Slave.” Others, had on white T-shirts saying “Respect 134-2,” the article in the constitution that they say dictates that Moise’s constitutional term legally ended on Feb. 7.
“I grew up in the Duvalier dictatorship and with a lot of other young people, I was a victim,” Liliane Pierre-Paul, a renown journalist said, moments before mayhem broke out in Pétion-Ville. “We don’t want for a dictatorship to come back again.”
Minutes later, as the crowd was forcibly dispersed, she was forced to seek cover inside a barber shop after police began firing tear gas and bullets near Rebecca Street, not far from the OAS.