By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As Haitian businessman Fedrique Pierre sold off the last of his tech company’s assets earlier this month and contemplated a move to the U.S. or Canada, fellow entrepreneur Charles-Edouard Denis had a different reaction to the violent protests, recurring fuel shortages and currency devaluation plaguing Haiti: He would try to keep his seafood export business afloat.
His Nissan Frontier pickup truck loaded with 5-gallon fuel cans, Denis drove from one closed gas station to another in Port-au-Prince, before finally fighting his way through a frustrated crowd, parked cars and motorcycle taxis to pump 50 gallons worth of diesel to keep his freezers running.
Life has never been easy in Haiti, where more than half of the population lives on less than $2.41 a day and only 10% of its labor force of 3 million people hold formal jobs. But for those in the middle — the entrepreneurs, the professionals, the working class — who are neither among the country’s tiny wealthy elite nor its impoverished masses, life is increasingly becoming unbearable.
“I went through the ouster of (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide in 2004 and the earthquake in 2010,” said Denis, 47, explaining how he tied 10 of the yellow gas cans together with a rope and dragged them across a parking lot to the filling station. “I’ve never seen Haiti in the condition that it’s currently in.”
The latest fuel crisis, prompted by low supplies, low cash reserves and a fuel debt that exceeded $130 million at its start four week ago, has turned streets into obstacle courses of flaming barricades, parked cars, and shuttered schools and businesses as employees fail to show and public transport stops running. And the consequences of the shortage are putting Haitians on edge.
Some have left the country, while others are considering bailing after years of trying to survive. In this latest round of shortages, it seems no one has been immune. Not the hospitals, where doctors are complaining about delayed surgeries because there is no diesel to run generators. Not the private schools, which saw enrollment plummet by as much as 50% even before the new school year, and this week pleaded with Haiti’s leaders for “a return to normalcy” as teachers failed to show and parents kept their children home.
Even the country’s main daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, got hit by the crisis. With journalists, press operators and delivery drivers unable to find fuel to come to work and violence circling its downtown Port-au-Prince headquarters, the paper was forced to forgo printing three of its five editions this week.
“You wake up in the morning and before you even say ‘good morning’ to your husband, you first have to consult the security alerts and ask, ‘Can I go out?’” said Sophie Jean-Pierre, a pediatrician, who after almost losing all of her refrigerated vaccines last week when the generator stopped working, let her frustrations loose.
In a poem that’s being widely circulated on the WhatsApp social messaging platform, Jean-Pierre, 55, said in French: “We wonder about the day. Do we go to work? Do we not got to work ? Do we go? Do we not go? And the children … do we send them to school? Do we not send them to school? Is there water left? Bread? Gas?”
The people, she continued, are in the streets. “What will they do?”
“One is waiting on an opening, the other to loot, one is waiting to pass and the other to break something, one is waiting to turn and the other to shoot, one expects to live and the other to survive … where are we going with all this, finally?”
Indeed, in a land where the rich and poor have always managed to survived the chaotic winds, people in the middle are asking how much of the volatility they can take.
“This is absurd … it’s not normal,” Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday, as flashes of last July’s three-day fuel riots returned as rumors quickly spread that the government would once again attempt a fuel price hike. “I’m a pediatrician and I am used to working with difficult problems. But at a certain point, the problems have become worse.”
Last week, Jean-Pierre flew to Florida. Her daughter, who lives in Canada, had wanted to come to Haiti to go to the beach. It was impossible, Jean-Pierre told her, with the burning tires, the volatile terrain and third week of no fuel, which had compelled some citizens and taxi drivers to block roads to demonstrate their anger.
“How can you talk about tourism when even those of us who are living here must risk our own lives to go to the beach?” Jean-Pierre said. “Some people are crying to get food and we are crying to get fuel. It’s horrible. It’s too much.”
Haiti consumes about 20,000 barrels of fuel a day, said Reginald Noel, an energy expert. Diesel, which represents about 65% or 12,000 barrels, is mostly used for individual generators because the state-owned Electricite d’Haiti, or EDH, only covers about 20% of the country. The company, meanwhile, receives about $20 million a month in government subsidies, which the international community has said is unsustainable.
On Thursday, 150,000 barrels of diesel arrived and on Friday, 50,000 barrels of petroleum products including gasoline were expected, said Eddy Jackson Alexis, a government spokesman. The government, he said, owes $41 million in arrears to its suppliers, but industry watchers say the real figure is well over $130 million.
The first debt is about $77 million owed to suppliers, including to Houston-based Novum, by the Haitian government agency that controlled the country’s fuel import market, the Bureau of Monetization of Programs and Development Aid. The second is roughly $52 million owed to fuel companies in Haiti over reimbursements of subsidies the government provides to keep the price of gasoline at $1.90 a gallon and diesel at $2.38 at the pump.
It was the government’s clumsy attempt at eliminating the excessive retail fuel subsidies, which the International Monetary Fund has called for, that sparked riots in July 2018 riots and the first of several countrywide lock downs.
The problems in Haiti run deeper than a lack of fuel or the money it’s losing on its importation, but the crisis has become emblematic of all that ails the country. Inflation is almost at 20% annually. The Gross Domestic Product is growing at less than 1.5% and corruption is rampant. The combination of problems have put Haiti in free fall, particularly because of the government’s failure to pay its fuel arrears, deal with increasing lack of safety and the rapid devaluation of the domestic currency, which is causing prices to soar.
Meanwhile, the country has two prime ministers and, in practice, two governments. Neither is constitutionally legal and neither can enter into agreement to get assistance to help soften the economic blow. There has been no budget for the past two years and President Jovenel Moise, who has failed to deliver on most of his promises including round-the-clock electricity by June, has stayed out of sight.
After a video surfaced on social media on Sunday of a woman burning to death, a rallying cry ignited. The woman reportedly had been riding with a fuel can on a motorcycle when the driver hit a car, and the gas can blew up.
Taking to social media, some Haitians began remarking that the woman’s undignified death and its circumstances were one of the many indignities Haitians have come to suffer as a result of the state’s inability to take care of its 11 million citizens.
Turning to Twitter to express their outrage, they tagged their disturbing testimonials with the Creole hashtag #MapFeGrev, or “I will strike.” On Monday, the capital was at a standstill.
Three years ago, Denis, the seafood exporter, moved his fish packaging plant from the gang-ridden Fontamara neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital to the hills of Petionville. His seven employees still live in the area, and he has had to resort to keeping mattresses at his plant for the days they can’t get home due to gang shootouts or lack of fuel for TapTaps, the public transport buses.
“Employees are asking for pay increases; obviously they need it to pay the TapTap … but my prices are going up,” said Denis, who finds himself now paying double for lobster meat and conch from local fisherman because of increased competition from Dominican businessmen and the devaluation of the Haitian currency, the gourde.
In a free fall against a strong U.S dollar, the gourde’s exchange rate today is 95 gourdes to a dollar, compared with 45 gourdes to the dollar five years ago.
“I have no time to sit or read because I spend half of my day trying to get fuel, managing transportation for some employees because there are shooting incidents all over the place,” Denis said.
Recently a female employee was raped coming out of her house at 5 a.m. to come to work, he said. The woman went to work anyway, said Denis, who paid for the woman to get medical care after his manager informed him of the incident.
“This is the kind of daily stuff that’s going on,” he said, noting that what’s happening in Haiti goes beyond the fuel shortage. “It’s a deeper problem and people are not talking much about it.”
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Pierre, the entrepreneur who closed his One Click Industries tech company, said things have become incredibly difficult.
While he too had to find ingenious ways to supplement the four to five hours of electricity he gets from the electric company daily in order to keep his servers running, that’s not what sent him over the edge, Pierre said. It was the almost daily plummeting of the gourde and the uncertainty that coms with every protest, every fuel shortage, every lock down.
“The disappointment is you have a Haitian who is trained and educated and you are forced to abandon your country, where you can be of even greater service,” said Pierre, 45, who was also hit with a nearly 30% hike on his 9-year-old son’s $2,300 tuition at the start of the school year.
In June, Pierre, whose company provided IT systems development and web services, laid off six of his eight engineers, turned in the keys to his office space and began liquidating his furnishings. The idea of starting fresh “is scary … but for the moment, this is something I must do,” he said.
“It’s a situation where the middle class, the economic class has started to try to remedy the situation by looking for opportunities to go somewhere else,” Pierre added.
That’s exactly what Maggie Bellabe did. After three years in Haiti — her third attempt in 30 years to returned live at home — she packed her bags and returned to South Florida.
“Haiti for me is a forgotten place. Even the people in Haiti forget that they have a country to run,” she said. “Who is thinking about the country? It’s not a country anymore. It’s a place where you are waiting for a visa, for a place to go. No one wants to change anything; they are all waiting to get out.”
Bellabe, who holds a Master’s degree in public administration, said she’s still waiting for seven months of back pay from the prime minister’s office, where she was working as a human resources administrator.
She ended up there after her last employer, the University of Fondwa, outside of Port-au-Prince, could no longer afford to keep her due to a drop in donations and lack of Haitian government support. The school provides rural Haitians with a chance to attend college and learn an agriculture trade with the support of U.S.-based churches.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” said Bellabe, who over time grew disenchanted and frustrated after moving to the capital. “It’s like I took my life and put it in a war zone and I ask myself, ‘Why?’ I wanted to give back and help my country get better.”
Denis, the seafood exporter, who attended college in the U.S. and has an MBA from Pace University in New York, said the thought of closing down and leaving has crossed his mind.
But for now, he’s staying put, even knowing that he’s just one fuel crisis and a 5-gallon jug away from losing it all.
“I’m hoping Haiti is going to be in a better place,” Denis said. “Everything is broken. We need a reset.”