In Brief

What’s Driving the Protests in Haiti?

Anti-government protests could mean humanitarian crisis in Haiti, a country with a long history of instability.

Violent protests have engulfed Haiti, with citizens taking to the streets over government corruption and fuel shortages. Observers worry the unrest, including calls for President Jovenel Moise’s resignation, could cause a humanitarian crisis.

What’s happening?

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Protests began in early September and have since killed at least seventeen people and injured nearly two hundred others around the country. Demonstrators have ransacked and burned businesses and government buildings, blocked roads, attacked officials, and clashed with police. The violence is the latest in a string of protests since July 2018. 

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Demonstrators have also gathered outside the United Nations headquarters in the capital, Port-au-Prince, demanding Moise’s resignation and calling on international leaders to withdraw support for the president.

What is driving the protests?

Corruption, economic mismanagement, and charges of fraudulent elections have driven discontent. Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, has seen sluggish growth and rising inflation since Moise took office in 2017 after elections that much of the opposition refused to accept.

Experts say the immediate spark is a worsening fuel shortage. Haiti’s energy problems are linked to the collapse of Petrocaribe, a program through which Venezuela provided Haiti with subsidized oil as part of an effort to strengthen Caracas’s diplomatic influence in the Caribbean. The deepening economic crisis and declining oil production in Venezuela put an end to that in 2018, forcing Haiti to seek oil at higher prices on the open market.

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A man takes part in a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A man takes part in a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

That dramatically worsened Haiti’s existing budget issues, after the country had already become heavily indebted to Venezuela as a result of deferring its oil payments. Forced to seek financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2018, the Haitian government agreed to implement IMF reforms that included ending energy subsidies and raising fuel prices by 50 percent. Violent protests erupted, and the policy was quickly reversed. But by August 2019 gas suppliers began halting deliveries due to unpaid bills. This led to shortages and further inflated fuel prices. Food costs are also up, threatening millions of Haitians living below the poverty line.

Opposition leaders argue that endemic corruption has deepened the crisis. Instead of using the money that Petrocaribe freed up to address persistent development challenges, they say, officials—including Moise—were allegedly pocketing billions.

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How has the United States responded?

Washington has so far avoided taking sides. Some observers allege that U.S. officials are hesitant to denounce Moise after he backed the United States’ recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, in January 2019, turning against longtime Haiti ally Nicolas Maduro. The absence of clear leadership among the protesters also limits the likelihood that the United States will intervene, according to CFR expert Paul J. Angelo.

As Haiti’s largest trade partner and a major source of aid during its recovery from the 2010 earthquake, the United States maintains significant influence over the Caribbean country, with American aid to Haiti totaling more than $308 million per year. However, the Donald J. Trump administration has sought to end initiatives intended to provide post-earthquake relief, including a low-skilled work visa program and temporary protected status (TPS) for over forty-five thousand Haitians living in the United States.

What’s next for Haiti?

Haiti’s opposition politicians have stoked the protests, urging the removal of the president and parliament and even announcing a committee to establish a transitional government. So far, Moise has refused to budge, though some of his allies have pressed him to make concessions, such as bringing members of the opposition into his government. Even if he did step down, the struggle to replace him could be equally chaotic.

Meanwhile, the fuel shortages and the disruption of the protests have crippled the delivery of basic services, including the distribution of food and water, pushing Haiti further toward a humanitarian crisis. Health services “will likely be completely disrupted if the situation continues,” warns the United Nations, and UN agencies have struggled to deliver aid. In a country already besieged by poverty, hunger, and a cholera threat, that could have outsize effects.

Haiti’s political precariousness could also cause an increase in migration, with residents fleeing to the Bahamas, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, Angelo says. At Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, the Dominican government has already deployed 1,500 more troops to prepare for a potential migration surge.

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