PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti’s largest opposition groups have united in a campaign to push U.S.-backed President Jovenel Moise from office with nationwide protests aimed at paralyzing the country starting on Friday.
Previous protests have led to dozens of deaths in clashes between protesters and police and left businesses shut for days, gravely damaging an economy already struggling with high inflation and worsening fuel shortages.
Newly named Prime Minister Jean Michel Lapin said Wednesday that he encouraged peaceful protest but the government would not allow violence on the streets.
“Our brothers are protesting for a better life, better education, health care and jobs. We encourage them to do that and respect the law,” Lapin told reporters. “People should respect the mandate of those who have been elected in a vote by the people.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last month that 26 people had been killed and 77 wounded over three weeks of protests and related violence.
Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, expressed concern about the violence in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.
Haiti has moved closer to the U.S. since taking the Trump administration’s side in its push to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Haiti backed Venezuela in regional forums for years and received billions of dollars of subsidized oil from the socialist government. That aid has now disappeared with Venezuela’s economic collapse, and Haiti recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido as head of state.
A Haitian Senate investigation found that some $2 billion in Venezuelan aid had been stolen or misspent, largely under the administration of Moise’s predecessor and political patron, Michel Martelly.
A judge is investigating the case and has frozen some local accounts but no other action has yet been taken against those presumed responsible, outraging many Haitians and fueling some of the street protests. Other protests have been organized by political parties who pay mostly young men to create chaos as a pressure tactic.
Opposition leaders Serge Jean Louis, Josue Merilien and Moise Jean Charles, who all head left-leaning groups, said they were calling their followers onto the streets until the president steps down.
“We’d rather die standing up than our knees,” Jean Charles told reporters Wednesday.
Along with the deteriorating economy and political instability, overall security in Haiti has been shaken by increasing gang violence and the Haitian police force’s inability to control large swathes of poor neighborhoods around the capital.
On Wednesday, gunmen attacked a motorcade carrying Chile’s ambassador to Haiti, wounding his driver and another person and leaving three missing, officials said. The ambassador was not harmed.
The Santiago, Chile-based charity America Solidaria said in a written statement Wednesday that gunmen opened fire as Ambassador Patricio Utreras and his wife