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Weekly Report - 27 February 2020 (WR-20-08)

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Hispaniola convulsed by violence and protests

“A warlike situation” and “an attack against democracy”. This was the authorities’ response to unprecedented scenes of Haiti’s national police (PNd’H) and newly reconstituted military (FAd’H) exchanging gunfire for over six hours near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince on 23 February. The violence, which left at least two dead and resulted in the cancellation of Haiti’s Carnival, the country’s biggest annual celebration, to avoid a further “bloodbath”, is the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation facing President Jovenel Moïse. Across the border in the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, daily pots-and-pans protests have been organised by youth movements in Santo Domingo, blaming the government led by President Danilo Medina for the suspension of municipal elections. Political opposition parties, seeking to capitalise on public indignation over suspected electoral fraud, staged a joint protest march.

Police rebellion lays bare new challenges for Moïse

While President Moïse faced mass protests last year over alleged corruption, high fuel prices and spiralling inflation, the latest unrest signals a further twist: it was the PNd’H staging the protests, over demands for better pay and the ability to unionise. The police rebellion comes as security concerns are already rife amid a power vacuum which has intensified following Moïse’s announcement last month that legislators’ terms had lapsed after elections in October 2019 failed to materialise [WR-20-02], leaving the deeply unpopular head of state ruling by decree.

In an initial statement following the 23 February incident, the FAd’H denied any clashes between the police and the military, claiming soldiers fired shots in response to an attack on its headquarters by “hooded individuals with firearms” who then tried to set the building alight. A subsequent FAd’H press release identifies the “hooded individuals” as claiming to be members of the police. Meanwhile, the media reported that the fire fight broke out as police protesters made their way onto the Champ de Mars (near the presidential palace) and were met with gunfire coming from a tower in the defence ministry.

The violence raises further questions over Moïse’s decision to revive the military, disbanded in 1995 by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991; 1994-1996; 2001-2004), which was already controversial due to its poor human rights record. Maintaining that such a move was necessary ahead of the withdrawal of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah) in October 2017, Moïse had said its work would involve responding to natural disasters and controlling the border with the Dominican Republic.

The violence also highlights a major concern for Moïse – police discontent. While police demands emerged in November last year [WR-19-46], anger has since intensified and the use of public funds for the Carnival, due to take place from 23 to 25 February (rather than to boost their meagre salaries), served as the latest rallying point.

Carnival stands were set ablaze in major protests on 7 February, when PNd’H officials waved banners complaining there was “no money for police officers but enough money for Carnival”. They also set fire to the PNd’H general inspectorate. Then, on 17 February, protesters firstly fired shots outside the PNd’H headquarters in Pétionville, a suburb of the capital, and then the Champs de Mars. The dismissal the following day of five PNd’H officials involved in efforts to unionise the force (despite this being prohibited by internal regulations), served to inflame tensions further.

Moïse has since offered concessions to the police. On 22 February he announced, among other things, a compensation fund for relatives of police officers killed on duty; plans to double a monthly police debit card from G5,000 (US$51) as of 1 March; the launch of a social housing programme; and a special fund for insurance cover.

However, these stop short of any pay rises and have yet to quell unrest which also stems from the vexed security situation with which the institution is faced. This was laid bare in a report released by the United Nations Secretary General on 13 February – the first such report to be issued since the departure of Minustah’s successor operation, the Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (Minujusth) in October 2019, effectively ending the UN’s peacekeeping presence after 15 years. The report showed a 42% rise in the number of reported intentional homicides in Haiti in 2019, compared with 2018, with 910 recorded cases involving 1,081 victims.

Marie Yolène Gilles, the executive director of the non-profit Fondasyon Je Klere, recently warned that “armed gangs now control around a third of the country”. The precarious situation facing the police itself was illustrated in figures cited by the UN Secretary General which showed a 147% increase in killings of police officers in 2019, with 42 registered compared with 17 in 2018 – the highest number since the inception of the PNd’H in 1995.

Police concerns

The police unrest comes as the institution itself was criticised in a joint report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Integrated Office for Haiti (Binuh – which replaced Minujusth), released on 18 February. The report examined the outbreak of gang violence in Bel Air, a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood, from 4-6 November 2019 which left at least three dead, six injured, and 30 families homeless after their houses were set on fire. It found that a notorious gang leader, former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, who was issued with a warrant of arrest in February 2019, was the main actor in the attacks. Cherizier was wanted for his alleged involvement in another massacre, in the Grand Ravine neighbourhood in November 2017 [WR-19-44] and has also been implicated in the La Saline massacre in November 2018 [WR-19-34].  

The OHCHR-Binuh report more generally warns that “far from being an isolated incident, the Bel Air attack illustrates the recent evolution of the current context in Haiti, mainly characterised by generalised insecurity in working-class neighbourhoods…the impunity of…gang members who commit human rights abuses, alleged collusion between them and certain political and economic actors, links between gang members and certain PNd’H officers, as well as the police’s failure to protect the population”.

Electoral protests

The Dominican Republic, like Haiti, is also in the grip of protests and political volatility. In many ways the two countries sharing the island of Hispaniola are strikingly different. The Dominican Republic lacks the widespread grinding poverty present in Haiti, and is at the forefront of regional economic growth. Indeed, the economy ministry released figures on 21 February showing that GDP expansion of 5% in 2019 was the highest in Latin America (albeit down on economic growth of recent years in the country, including 7% in 2018).

But there are similarities between the two neighbours. One of them is a deep-rooted public distrust of politicians. This was exacerbated in the Dominican Republic by the corruption scandal involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which exposed bribes to the tune of some US$92m doled out to Dominican officials to secure public works contracts. As such, when the Dominican electoral authorities (JCE) suspended municipal elections on 16 February after the automated voting system malfunctioned, it caused a public outcry, fuelled suspicion of sabotage, and spawned daily protests [WR-20-07].

Young Dominicans led the way. Feeding off recent protests across the region, in which social media has played a pivotal role, they coordinated a series of ‘cacerolazos’ outside JCE headquarters in central Santo Domingo. The police have employed heavy-handed tactics to disperse protesters, but the pots-and-pans protests have continued unabated despite the fact the JCE swiftly announced that the municipal elections would be restaged on 15 March with a full manual count. As we go to press young adults are organising a ‘march for democracy’ to coincide with Independence Day on 27 February when President Medina is due to deliver his eighth and last state-of-the-nation address. Dominican singers Juan Luis Guerra and Rita Indiana have said they will join the marchers, who are demanding explanations from the JCE; a guarantee that upcoming elections will be free and fair; and that Medina address the matter in his speech.

While the protests are directed at the JCE, they constitute a wider expression of disillusionment with the political class and ruling elite. Youth activists have refused to allow opposition politicians to participate in their protests. This has not stopped opposition parties, however, from trying to take advantage of the protests to ratchet up the pressure on the Medina administration as they seek to end the stranglehold on power exercised by the ruling Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) since 2004. Presidential and congressional elections are due to take place on 17 May, two months after the rescheduled municipal contests.

The presidential candidate of the main opposition Partido Revolucionario Moderno (PRM), Luis Abinader, led a march on 23 February in central Santo Domingo in which 13 political parties took part, including Fuerza del Pueblo (FP), the electoral outfit led by thrice former president Leonel Fernández (1996-2000; 2004-2012), who abandoned the PLD last October citing electoral fraud after he was narrowly defeated in primary elections by Medina’s chosen successor, Gonzalo Castillo. PRM vice president Faride Raful read out a joint manifesto demanding that the government and JCE oversee “free elections, with fairness, objectivity, and transparency”. “The public is tired of state abuses, public insecurity, the growth in inequality, and the highest levels of corruption and impunity,” she read, while blaming the government for the suspension of the elections.

  • Cedeño

Dominican Vice President Margarita Cedeño announced on 24 February that she would be the running mate of PLD presidential candidate Gonzalo Castillo in May’s general election. This means that Cedeño will be standing against her husband former president Leonel Fernández. Cedeño said she would not “lose any sleep over being wrongly judged by some people for staying in my party”.

The manifesto makes 10 demands “to recover credibility and confidence” in the elections: that the government stop misusing public funds to gain an electoral advantage for PLD candidates; an end to all clientelism and politicised state publicity; and that electoral crimes, such as vote buying, be properly punished.
Acknowledging public distrust of Dominican institutions, the JCE has suspended its technical director, Miguel Ángel García, and the government has dropped an investigation into the electoral debacle by the attorney general’s office and instead enlisted the support of the Organization of American States (OAS) on 21 February to lead an audit of the automated voting system.

Unrest

Indicative of other, more general, challenges facing Haiti’s police, the report published by the UN Secretary General on 13 February tallied at least 1,341 demonstrations, roadblocks, and barricades between 1 September and 30 November 2019 – when most of the country was in lock-down amid calls for President Moïse to resign.