Haiti police and army square off in gun battle on first day of Carnival
On the first day of Haiti’s pre-Lenten Carnival celebration, the country’s two armed forces squared off Sunday, with off-duty members of the Haiti National Police and their supporters exchanging gunfire for more than two hours with members of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s reconstituted army just steps away from the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
The gun battle between cops — some of them in uniform and others hooded and dressed in civilian clothing fighting alongside civilian protesters — and members of the newly revived Armed Forces of Haiti took place shortly after 1 p.m. on the Champ de Mars, the staging ground for Carnival festivities.
By 8 p.m. the government announced that its national Carnival, planned for Sunday thru Tuesday, was officially canceled “in order to avoid the planned bloodshed.” The announcement came about an hour after the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the North told the Miami Herald that he had taken a similar decision regarding Cap-Haitien’s Mardi Gras. A spokesman for the commission overseeing the festivities later insisted that the street party would go on.
With gunshots replacing the masqueraders and musical acts who traditionally invite the population to throw caution to the wind and dance in abandonment, the public square in Port-au-Prince had quickly turned into a war zone littered with rocks, wounded people and bullets.
At least one person was killed in the capital when he was hit in the head with a bullet, local radio Radio Mega reported. At least 13 others were also wounded, including police officers, the radio said.
Radio Television Caraibes, a popular radio station on Rue Chavannes, also came under attack, with unknown individuals setting fire to at least four cars in front of the station, according to one of its morning hosts, Pierre Renel Rene.
“I didn’t know I was coming to battle,” said a 24-year-old police officer, who was wearing his uniform but did not want to give his name and broke down in tears as he accused the army of opening fire on them and noted that several of his colleagues had been shot. “The government already knew what they were prepared to do…. They decided to assassinate us, but we aren’t going to back down.”
The officer, who joined the force two years ago, said police had decided that they would “do our own Carnival” after the government on Saturday failed to reinstate five fired officers involved in a unionization effort, or meet their demands for a pay increase.
In a press conference, acting Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin said the government could not immediately raise officers’ pay — which is between $200 and $255 a month before taxes — due to rules governing the salaries of public servants.
Instead, Moïse announced other measures. They included doubling a monthly police debit card from $51 to $102 for 15,000 members of the police force; the construction of a new police housing village with 2-bedroom apartments that would be sold with a mortgage payable over 25 to 30 years at 7.5 percent interest rate, and access to the National Old Age Insurance Office (ONA), a government pension plan reserved for private-sector employees.
The government, Moïse said, would provide officers with a preferential 12 percent interest rate on loans and pay half of it, with officers contributing the other 6 percent. But in order to take advantage of the loans, officers, under ONA’s rules, its director said, would need to buy insurance from the program.
Finance experts say if the Haitian government, already deeply in debt and running a deficit, proceeds with the plan to allow public servants to qualify for ONA loans, there is a risk that the pension fund will be raided and the public treasury, already suffering from a downturn in tax receipts, would be the first victim.
“We already took to the streets where we asked the Haitian government to improve our working conditions, and we asked for an increase in our pay,” said the officer, dismissing the promises. “We are not backing down.
“In the two years I’ve been in the police I’ve risked my life more than in the 20 years I lived before,” he said. “Our demands are just.”
At the base of the tensions is the protest movement by police seeking to unionize and Haiti’s insistence that the show — Kanaval 2020 — would go on despite the burning of parade stands and the trucks transporting the generators, musical acts and revelers earlier in the week.
Parade stands and floats went up in smoke both along the Champ de Mars and in Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second-largest city where, former president Michel Martelly was set to perform as his alter ego, Sweet Micky, on Sunday after being a no-show at a pre-Carnival fete the night before at a popular waterfront restaurant in the northern city.
The tensions continued on Sunday as crowds in Port-au-Prince took the Champ de Mars, where a presidential viewing stand had been reconstructed behind the wall protecting the army’s headquarters at the Ministry of Defense. A gigantic parade stand in Cap-Haïtien, was also dismantled. A crowd later ran through the streets singing, “For this Carnival thing, the country might as well burn down.”
Marc Georges, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the North, who oversaw the Carnival committee in Cap-Haïtien, told the Herald that he canceled his city’s Carnival due to security concerns.
“We couldn’t guarantee the security of the revelers,” Georges said, adding he spoke to several local officials before taking the decision. “If they tell me that the security will be there tomorrow, I will say ‘Let’s go back to the Carnival.’ But for tonight, I cannot in good faith tell people to go out into the streets and enjoy the Carnival given the security situation.”
David Toussiaint, a spokesman for the president of the Cap-Haitien Commission 350, however, said that Sunday’s showcase was still happening. “All of the musicians are on their floats ready to go; we are waiting on the rain,” he said, insisting that it was not Georges’ decision to cancel.
Unrest was also reported in the cities of Gonaives and Les Cayes, where stands were either set on fire or arson attempts were made.
In a statement to the press, the high command of Haiti’s Armed Forces said there was “no confrontation between the police force and the army.”
“However, hooded individuals with firearms attacked the headquarters and attempted to set it on fire. The soldiers on guard, one of whom was hit by a projectile in the back, had to shoot into the air to have them evacuated,” the statement said.
Haiti’s army was disbanded in 1995 following a history of military coups and soldiers engaged in repression. In a controversial move, the army was revived and Moïse in 2017, promised that the new army would work to control the country’s border with the Dominican Republic and respond to natural disasters.
Journalists reporting on the event said the firefight broke out as the crowd of protesters made their way onto the Champ de Mars firing shots in the air. They were quickly greeted by gunfire coming from the 2004 Tower, located inside the defense ministry and overlooking the public square and the grounds of the palace.
Live video feeds showed armed individuals firing back at the tower as they ducked for cover behind concrete benches and laid on the ground next to uniformed cops with bullet-proof vests. Pedestrians ran through the streets looking for cover.
At one point the government deployed armored police vehicles from a newly arrived fleet of 15. The protesters, including the uniformed cops, used the tactical response vehicle instead as a a shied from the tower’s gunfire. Later a group of pro-union cops commandeered one of the vehicles and extracted a member of the palace’s specialized police unit. Seeing that his life was in danger, the police officer quickly removed his hood and raised his hands in surrender.
As the gun battled carried on, the police officers and civilians who had accompanied them were soon joined by militants coming out of nearby slums onto the main roads, openly carrying assault weapons.
“If you don’t call this a confrontation than I don’t know what is,” Radio Mega journalist and host Ramanes Samedi said during the station’s live transmission.
By early evening the situation remained tense, spreading to other parts of the capital. Parts of Petionville and Montagne Noir were blocked off.
The government’s insistence on staging this year’s’ Carnival, which was canceled last year due to unrest, made the festivities a bone of contention, as Haitians questioned whether their country, suffering from a deep economic and political crisis, can afford the expensive street party.
Their concerns come amid an increase in armed gang criminal activities, including a resurgence in kidnappings and as the Haiti National Police, which was trained by the United Nations and is partly financed by the U.S. and Canada, faces a crisis.
Johnny Jack contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.
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