A general strike has shut down most of Haiti, where anti-corruption protests demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise have continued for a fourth day.
After deadly weekend protests, followed by the general strike, Moise emerged late on Wednesday to reaffirm his legitimacy and appeal for calm in a televised address.
Tension and uncertainty gripped the Caribbean country following the protests and Moise’s unexplained absence from public view.
“During my five-year presidency no one, I emphasize no one, whatever the pretext, can threaten the interests of the country or put the nation in danger,” said Moise, who has been in power since February 2017.
Making his first public comments since the weekend protests, Moise said dialogue must include all levels of society, and that democracy “asks that the rules of the game be respected, according to the constitution.”
He gave his six-minute address surrounded by Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant, the ministers of interior and justice, and national police leaders.
Moise had said nothing since Sunday’s protests and was supposed to speak to the nation on Tuesday, but his appearance was dropped several hours after being announced, with no explanation given.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and is still battling to overcome a years-old cholera epidemic and the aftermath of a major earthquake, alongside political turmoil.
On Wednesday, a Haitian government car crashed into a group of people, reportedly killing at least six and further inflaming unrest in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which has been wracked by violent protests.
Police reported that one of the car’s wheels had come off. Protesters later set the car on fire.
Schools, shops and private businesses were closed in the main cities across the country on Wednesday, in line with the opposition call for a general strike.
As police patrolled otherwise empty main avenues in normally chaotic Port-au-Prince, burning barricades went up in some neighbourhoods and sporadic gunshots set residents on edge.
At least three people were killed by gunfire during the mass protests over the weekend demanding Moise’s resignation, the national police said. The opposition said 11 people lost their lives.
Various opposition groups, arguing that the situation is out of control, have proposed ways to remove the president in order to resolve the crisis.
The protests were part of a sporadic movement that began during the summer over a scandal at the heart of a Venezuelan aid programme known as Petrocaribe.
Through the programme, Venezuela for years supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms.
But investigations by the Haitian Senate in 2016 and 2017 concluded that nearly $2bn from the programme was misused.
A dozen of Haiti’s former cabinet ministers – all members of the current ruling party – have been implicated but no legal proceedings have followed, sparking public anger.
Moise is seen as blocking any court action over the scandal.