PORT-AU-PRINCE — At least six people have died in nearly week long protests demanding that President Jovenel Moise resign in Haiti, which saw fresh tensions and a major prison break on Tuesday.
All 78 detainees at the prison in Aquin, a city of around 100,000 on the south coast of the country’s Tiburon Peninsula, escaped around midday, a national police spokesman said.
The exact circumstances of the prison break are unclear, but witnesses said it took place during an anti-Moise demonstration in front of the police station adjoining the penitentiary.
Some 200km north of the prison, Port-au-Prince also saw clashes between police and hundreds of protesters in working-class neighbourhoods.
Thousands of people took to the streets. After police forces dispersed them, some set fire to cars and looted stores to express their mounting frustration over growing social inequalities worsened by systemic corruption.
A youth was also shot dead at a crossroads near the presidential palace.
The former French colony is in the grip of a political crisis that has seen citizens demonstrate in the capital Port-au-Prince and elsewhere over the last week to demand Moise’s resignation.
Barricades have sprung up in some areas of the capital and other cities, with protesters demanding the president answer reports of mismanagement and possible embezzlement of development funds in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Police only provided a toll after the first day of nationwide protests on February 7, with two killed on the sidelines of the marches. Since then, AFP has counted four other people shot dead.
Amid the degradation in security conditions, the US State Department ordered all minor children of diplomats posted at the American embassy in Haiti to leave the country.
In a statement, the agency also “approved the authorised departure of adult family members and non-emergency US personnel”.
Prison conditions in Haiti are considered to be among the most inhumane in the world by human rights groups. Detainees face extremely crowded conditions, poor hygiene, food shortages and a lack of healthcare.
The justice system is notoriously slow and has been blamed for contributing to the crisis.
In October, an investigation found that three-quarters of the 11,839 people imprisoned in Haiti were still waiting for a court ruling — a delay that has sometimes stretched beyond a decade.
‘President lied to us’
Demonstrators are demanding Moise quit over a scandal centering on the Petrocaribe fund, under which Venezuela supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms for years.
“The president lied to us. These promises of giving us work so we can finally have money to buy food was just bluffing,” said Vanel Louis-Paul, who joined protesters demanding change.
“Look, he’s been in power for two years and people are starving now more than ever. If Jovenel won’t go, we will make the bourgeoisie that supported him suffer so it understands.”
Adding to the mounting frustration, investigations have shown that nearly $2 billion from the programme were misused.
A report released in January on the misuse of the money also named a company that was then headed by Moise as a beneficiary of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.
During his election campaign, Moise promised “food on every plate and money in every pocket”, yet most Haitians still struggle to make ends meet and face inflation that has risen 15 per cent since his election.
A mediation group composed of senior officials from the UN, Brazil and a coalition of Western nations has called on Haiti’s politicians to enter dialogue over the crisis, lamenting the loss of life and damage caused by the protests.
While the government has offered no response to the demands of demonstrators, opposition groups have also failed to spell out any concrete solution to the crisis, beyond calling for the president to step aside.