Haiti prime minister resigns after deadly unrest

Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant (above) has resigned.
Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant (above) has resigned.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) - Embattled Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant resigned on Saturday (July 14) following deadly violence and looting sparked by a now-abandoned plan to raise fuel prices.

"I submitted my resignation to the president of the republic," who has "accepted my resignation," Lafontant said in the lower house of Haiti's legislature.

Lafontant had faced a potential vote of no confidence had he not resigned.

Last week, the government in the impoverished Caribbean country announced plans for major fuel price hikes - 38 per cent for gasoline, 47 per cent for diesel and 51 per cent for kerosene.

The announcement sparked mass protests, with streets in the capital Port-au-Prince and other cities blocked with barricades of debris and burning tires.

Dozens of shops were looted and burned and cars were set ablaze. At least four people were killed. The government quickly did an about-face and called off the planned price increases.

Lafontant, a physician who had little political experience before taking office in February 2017, had faced widespread criticism even before the spasm of violence.

Haiti is desperately poor: around 60 percent of its people live on less than two dollars a day, and they are extremely sensitive to even minor increases in prices of just about anything.

In February, Haiti signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the Washington-based global crisis lender, in which the country committed to carrying out economic and structural reforms to promote growth.

'MORE GRADUAL APPROACH'

One of those conditions was the elimination of petroleum product subsidies, prompting the doomed price hike proposal.

The accord also called on the government to keep inflation under 10 percent.

Since 2015, inflation has been running at 13 to 14 per cent annually. The budget blueprint submitted to the legislature in late June still foresaw a rate of 13.6 per cent.

 

On Thursday, the IMF suggested "a more gradual approach" to ending fuel subsidies, paired with "compensatory and mitigating measures to protect the most vulnerable people."

"We will continue to support Haiti... as they develop a revised reform strategy," IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said, noting that ending subsidies would free up funds for other programs like education.

Crafting a revised strategy - and divvying up Haiti's meager budget resources - will be a delicate task.

The decision to scrap the price hikes means the government will have to find another way to come up with the US$300 million the move would have generated.

It is not an insignificant amount - the total is more than 11 per cent of the 2018-2019 budget presented to parliament in June for debate.

Now, the government of President Jovenel Moise has to find a way to appease all sides - angry and impatient consumers, politicians with varying interests and IMF economists.

Haiti's deep levels of inequality are often cited by protesters who want to see not just Lafontant but Moise out of office.

More than 200 years after gaining independence from France, Haiti is still ranked by the World Bank as having one of earth's most unjust societies.