U.S. airlines cancel all flights to Haiti as violent protests continue over gas prices

Protests erupt in Haiti over sharp rise in fuel prices

Protests erupted in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien after the Commerce Ministry and Economic Ministry announced a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Opposition groups say they expect more protests throughout the country.
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Protests erupted in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien after the Commerce Ministry and Economic Ministry announced a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Opposition groups say they expect more protests throughout the country.

U.S. airlines canceled all of their flights to Haiti Saturday and the country’s embattled prime minister called for Haitians to stop blocking roads and burning tires amid civil unrest that was triggered by an announcement of sharp hikes in fuel prices.

At least three people have died as a result of violence that erupted Friday afternoon, including a police officer and security guard for a former legislative candidate and opposition leader. Also, two police stations — one in the city of Gonaives and the other in Carrefour on the outskirts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince — were set ablaze.

Both Spirit Airlines and JetBlue — which diverted 1709 flight to Santo Domingo and sent it to Fort Lauderdale Friday night "due to the civil unrest," announced flight cancellations Saturday into Port-au-Prince.

"Due to concerns over safety from unrest in the area, Spirit Airlines felt it necessary to temporarily suspend service to Port-au-Prince, Haiti," said spokesman Derek Dombrowski. "We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused, but the safety of our guests and crew is paramount. "

American Airlines canceled all of its flights including the one to Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti, spokeswoman Martha Pantin said.

“Anybody’s going to Haiti? All flights are canceled,” a Broward County Sheriff's deputy at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport yelled as he walked near the Transportation Security Administration check-in line.

The attacks, which appear to have overwhelmed a poorly-resourced Haiti National Police force that for the first time does not have the backing of a U.N. peacekeeping force, continued Saturday. Helpless residents and tourists watched as angry crowds attacked luxury hotels and businesses owned by high-profile Haitians while demanding that President Jovenel Moïse pull back the gas hikes or resign.

The call for a rollback was echoed by Lower Chamber President Gary Bodeau, who tweeted that he was giving "Guy Lafontant and the government a second chance to turn back" its decision.

Shortly before 2 p.m. Lafontant, condemning the violence, tweeted that "the government announces the suspension of the price adjustment measure for petroleum products until further notice."

But it maybe too little, too late.

Near the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, a fiery barricade blocked parts of the road while an angry mob broke the front door of the Best Western hotel in Petionville with rocks. Outside, seven cars were set on fire. As black smoke billowed in the air, firefighters were nowhere to be found and a crowd of more than 300 men holding machetes and batons threatened more chaos. Elsewhere around the capital, businesses were pelted with rocks. Some were vandalized and looted.

"Every time you do it, the country becomes poorer," Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant said in a televised address early Saturday morning. "Every time you destroy a store, it's jobs that a Haitian will lose.

"I'm asking you for patience because the administration's vision is clear," he said, a reference to himself and President Jovenel Moïse, who has been in office 17 months. "It has a clear program that it has continued to execute."

Describing the government's plans to bring 2,485 miles of roads and 24-hour electricity to the country, Lafontant sounded more like a politician still on the campaign trail than one with a grip on the deepening crisis.

But as the unrest continued Saturday, many wondered how much longer Lafontant can remain in office. A vote of no-confidence on his government had been put on hold late last month amid questions about the legality of four of ministers who were appointed in a recent cabinet shake up.

Haitians trapped in the unrest describe it as spontaneous and symptomatic of a much deeper anger in the population with the increase in fuel prices being the last straw.

"Gas prices going up is not good for us and it's not good for you," one young man told a Haitian-American couple as they tried to negotiate their way through one of many road blocks in southern Haiti, trying to get to the outskirts of the town of Cavaillon.

On Friday, the Haitian government announced that fuel prices would rise at midnight. The increases were set at 38 percent for gasoline, 47 percent for diesel and 51 percent for kerosene, the country’s Commerce and Economic Ministry said in a joint statement.

The Ministry of Social Affairs also announced new fares for public transportation, with some routes now going up as much as 50 percent.

The price hikes affect everyone, from the struggling construction company owner whose weekly diesel costs will now up go from $1,310 to $2,034 for 500 gallons to the school teacher who will see her grocery bill increase. But the poor are especially affected.

Since 2010, Haiti has lost more than $770 million in revenues by keeping gas prices low, government officials say.

"Only 25 percent of the population has benefited from the subsidization," Haiti's Finance Minister Jude Alix Patrick Solomon said Friday at a press conference about the fuel hikes. "It's difficult for you to be asking your international partners to give you budgetary assistance or support and at the same time you have revenue that you are not capturing."

The fuel hikes are part of an agreement that Haiti entered into with the International Monetary Fund. It has called on Haiti to make sweeping reforms in its public administration and raise gas prices in accordance with its 1995 law that requires prices to be adjusted with every shipment. Failing to impose the reforms can cost Haiti up to $9 million in budgetary support from international donors.

A graphic of the hikes went viral shortly after 2 p.m. Friday as Haitians were watching Brazil lose to Belgium in the World Cup. Right after the game ended, violence erupted with crowds in several major cities setting up fiery tire barricades that cut off major roads. Many people got trapped in offices, restaurants, hotel lobbies and on the streets. They either had to abandon their cars and walk home or take refuge.

In Petionville, roads leading to wealthier hillside communities were targeted. Cars were pelted with rocks as residents attempted to make their way home. Protesters even cut off a detour to Montagne Noire that had become popular in recent days after upset residents in the Pelerin 5 community started protesting the demolition of several houses in the vicinity of the president's private residence days earlier.

The government claims the houses were the private property of the state, and they had to be demolished for security purposes. But residents objected saying they have had no due process.

In response to the violence, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince warned U.S. citizens to avoid certain area and at the height of the violence on Friday issued a shelter-in-place order for embassy employees.