Government officials in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, will lose their perks under emergency economic and anti-corruption measures announced on Saturday by Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant after days of deadly protests.
The demonstrations also reflect widespread anxieties about the state of the economy, amid ballooning inflation and people’s struggle to pay for basic necessities.
“Everything is more expensive now, the country is on lockdown, you can’t go uptown or downtown to buy anything,” Frederique Gamaniel, a market vendor, told Al Jazeera.
At least seven people have died in Haiti since February 7 when the latest protests began.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Ceant said in a 20-minute address that the government’s first decision has been to “cut the prime minister’s budget by 30 percent”, which suggested the presidency and parliament will take similar measures.
“We also need to withdraw all unnecessary privileges for high-level government officials, like allowances for gas and telephones, needless trips abroad, and the amount of consultants,” he said on state television.
On Sunday, nine days after the riots started, relative calm returned to the capital, Port-au-Prince.
“We are in Port-Au-Prince where there is a sense of calm that is returning to different parts of the city,” Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo said.
“[But] this doesn’t mean that tensions are gone,” he added. “This doesn’t mean that the discontent is over, there are still pockets of unrest in the city where demonstrators continue to call for the resignation of the Haitian president.”
The demonstrations are the culmination of months of anti-corruption protests over the fate of almost $4bn in missing funds that were earmarked to be used for social development in the country under Venezuela’s social programme, Petrocaribe.
The demonstrators gathered under the slogan: “Kot kob PetroKaribe a?”, meaning “where is the Petrocaribe money”.
Answering to that question, Ceant said: “I guarantee you, the youth, that the question will not go unanswered.”
«Kot Kòb #PetwoKaribe a ? » Mwen ba nou garanti kesyon sa pap rete san repons. Yon gwo egzanp ap resi trase nan peyi sa !
— Jean-Henry Céant (@jeanhenryceant) February 17, 2019
Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela for years supplied several Caribbean countries with oil at cut-rate prices. The arrangement offered Haiti fuel with a down payment of 60 percent of the purchase price, and the rest of the cost spread at very low terms of interest over 25 years.
Investigations by the Haitian Senate in 2016 and 2017 concluded that nearly $2bn from the programme was misused.
The investigation called for charges to be brought against two former prime ministers and several cabinet ministers for alleged embezzlement, abuse of authority and forgery.
According to analysts, this aggravated the confidence crisis in the country.
“People don’t trust the government, people don’t expect solutions from the government, they don’t even believe in what they’re saying,” Haitian economist Etzer Emile told Al Jazeera.
After at least three people were killed by gunfire during protests in late November, Ceant promised a crash programme to create jobs in poor neighbourhoods, and assured that he was hearing the complaints of young Haitians.
The prime minister’s announcement to curb government perks came after President Moise on Thursday broke his silence after a week of protests and said he would not hand the country over to drug traffickers and that dialogue was the only way to stop a civil war.
“I, Jovenel Moise, head of state, will not give the country up to armed gangs and drug traffickers,” he said, alluding to government officials who he said reportedly took to the streets along with “heads of gangs wanted by the law”.
He added: “I heard the voice of the people. I know the problems that torment them. That’s why the government has taken many measures. I asked the prime minister to explain them and to apply them without delay to relieve misery.”
His speech ignited anger in some parts of the population. “The president fanned the flames with his speech,” Joachin Patrick, a Haitian protester said.
“It’s clear now, the poor Haitians that live in the ghetto need to rise up against the president.”
Despite international aid, Haiti remains the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished country.
According to the World Bank, about 59 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the national poverty line of $2.41 a day, while an estimated 24 percent lives in extreme poverty on less than $1.23.