Haitian President Jovenel Moise has broken his silence after a week of violent protests demanding his resignation.
In an address from the presidential palace on Thursday, Moise vowed not to “give the country up to armed groups and drug traffickers,” alluding to government officials whom he said took to the streets along with “heads of gangs wanted by the law.”
“I heard the voice of the people. I know the problems that torment them. That’s why the government has taken many measures,” he said.
“I asked the prime minister to explain them and to apply them without delay to relieve misery.”
Since February 7, at least seven people have died as the country plunged into political crisis, with everyday life paralysed as a result of protests and barricades set up in the largest towns.
The US State Department on Thursday ordered out all non-emergency US personnel and their families amid the spiralling unrest. Canada said it was closing its embassy in Port-au-Prince on Thursday due to “current volatility,” but would “continue to assess the situation in the coming days.”
The demonstrators, angry about skyrocketing inflation and the alleged theft of nearly $2bn in Venezuelan oil relief to the island, are demanding Moise’s resignation.
Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo said people’s anger wasn’t only for the president.
“Why are people so angry? A lot of it has to do with the PetroCaribe scandal where billions of dollars in money that was allocated for social development projects is simply unaccounted for. So, not only are Haitians calling for the resignation of the president, saying that they have zero confidence left in the government, what they are asking is where that money went,” he said.
Moise, a 50-year-old former entrepreneur who set up a string of businesses in the north of Haiti, where he hails from, burst on to the political stage two years ago with a populist message of building up the impoverished Caribbean nation.
His rhetoric was seemingly backed up by his business background: Past ventures included water treatment, the energy sector and agricultural production, the latter of which earned him his nickname, “Neg Bannan nan” or “The Banana Man” in Creole.
His business interests had led him to a meeting in 2014 with the man who would become his political mentor: then-president Michel Martelly, a former singer who had once performed under the stage name Sweet Micky. Martelly too had been a political newbie when he took the presidency in 2011 and had also campaigned on a populist platform.
Moise’s flagship project was Agritrans, a firm running a banana plantation that sits on over 1,000 hectares of land it was granted tax-free access to.
After a heady launch in 2014, the company was dogged by questions about the plantation’s financing, which opponents of the president are now using to stoke speculation about corruption.
The government had given Agritrans a $6m loan in 2015, and undisclosed investors are said to have put in $10m.
In a report published last month, a court investigating mismanagement of a major development fund also found that Moise’s Agritrans banana firm had been paid to upgrade a road, but that no contract had ever been located by the investigating judges.