By Jacqueline Charles
Haiti’s prime minister reiterated an appeal for dialogue with the country’s opposition — and promised that an investigation into the alleged misspending of nearly $2 billion from the Venezuela PetroCaribe discount oil program that was supposed to be invested in programs for the poor will happen.
“I guarantee you the youth that the question will not go unanswered,” Jean Henry Céant said Saturday, referring to the question — “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or Where is the PetroCaribe money? — that Haitians, and the youth in particular, have been posing.
The alleged corruption surrounding the fund and the government’s mismanagement of the economy have been at the heart of violent demonstrations that have rocked Haiti since Feb. 7.
The violence has led many foreign diplomats, visitors and even Haitians with means to flee the country over the past 10 days. Both the Canadian government and U.S. State Department have raised their travel warnings for Haiti, warning citizens to avoid travel to the country.
Céant, like Haiti President Jovenel Moïse who finally broke his silence on Thursday, had been mum during most of the protests.
A lawyer and notary, he was tapped by Moïse five months ago to lead the government. The president noted his dissatisfaction with his prime minister during his own address to the country, saying since Céant took the helm of the government, the situation has gotten worse.
Céant did not address the president’s concerns and instead focused on the impact of the last 10 days, and the need for Haitians to come together to discuss the country’s problems.
“It’s been ten days since children have been unable to go to school, hospitals can’t provide healthcare, big businesses and small businesses can’t function,” he said. “It’s been 10 days since the government has lost a lot of money. At the same time, the population has suffered a lot. Because of the roadblocks, it cannot find potable water, it can’t eat, it can’t find gas, it can’t get electricity. All of this can take us to deep humanitarian crisis.”
In his speech, which was prerecorded, Céant condemned the acts of violence including the burning of an American flag during one of the protests, and the trashing of the embassies of Peru and Italy during the protests.
“While we are asking for tourists to enter the country, we can’t continue to send negative signals so someone doesn’t want to return to visit us,” he said.
Céant said Haiti’s problems didn’t start overnight and are rooted in three areas: corruption, the inequality and decades of bad governance. He said he and his ministers have heard the cry of the population and have been working to address their demands. But the only way out of the crisis, he said, is dialogue.
He listed recent measures that including a 30 percent cut in the prime minister’s budget and a curtail on travel, fuel and other perks for ministers.
He also announced plans to hold several discussions with the international community, factory owners and investors involved in national production in hopes of reversing the dire economic situation. But it remains to be seen if these measures will be enough to cool tensions and get protesters off the streets. Haiti is facing a 15 percent inflation rate, huge budget deficit and free falling domestic currency.