PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The poor now target the poor in Haiti. Many fear leaving their homes, buying groceries or paying a bus fare — acts that can draw the attention of gangs out to kidnap anyone with cash, no matter how little.
Many schools shut their doors this month, not over Covid-19, but to protect students and teachers against a kidnapping-for-ransom epidemic that began haunting the nation a year ago. No one is spared: not nuns, priests or the children of struggling street vendors. Students now organize fund-raisers to collect ransoms to free classmates.
Their hardship may only worsen as Haiti hurtles toward a constitutional crisis.
The opposition has demanded that President Jovenel Moïse step down, saying his five-year term ended on Sunday. But the president is refusing to vacate office, arguing that an interim government occupied the first year of his five-year term.
In a defiant, hourlong speech on Sunday, Mr. Moïse heaped scorn on his detractors.
“I am not a dictator,” Mr. Moïse said. “My term ends Feb. 7, 2022.”
As tensions mounted on Sunday, the government announced the arrest of over 20 people, claiming they had been involved in a plot to overthrow and kill the president. Those detained — on charges the opposition said were trumped up — included a Supreme Court judge and one of Haiti’s police general inspectors.
After years enduring hunger, poverty and daily power cuts, Haitians say their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is in the worst state they have seen, with the government unable to provide the most basic services.
Many fear the current political tensions will only worsen the country’s paralysis and poor governance. By Sunday afternoon, clashes erupted between protesters and the police in three different cities across the nation.
Haiti is “on the verge of explosion,” a collection of the country’s Episcopal bishops said in a statement late last month.
Over the weekend, Haiti’s judiciary branch sided with the opposition, a disparate grouping of activists, politicians and religious leaders, and ruled that Mr. Moïse’s term ended Sunday.
On Friday, the United States government weighed in on Mr. Moïse’s side — an important perspective for many Haitians, who often look to their larger neighbor for guidance on the direction the political winds are blowing.
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, supported Mr. Moïse’s argument that his term ends next February and added that only then “a new elected president should succeed President Moïse.”
But Mr. Price also sent a warning to Mr. Moïse about delaying elections and ruling by decree.
“The Haitian people deserve the opportunity to elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions,” Mr. Price added.
Mr. Moïse has led by presidential decree since last year, after suspending two-thirds of the Senate, the entire lower Chamber of Deputies and every mayor throughout the country. Haiti now has only 11 elected officials in office to represent its 11 million people, with Mr. Moïse having refused to hold any elections over the last four years.
Mr. Moïse is seeking to expand his presidential powers in the coming months…