PORT-AU-PRINCE - A national holiday meant to honor the 215th anniversary of the battle of Vertieres, a major victory for Haiti's slaves in the war for independence against the French army, was marked by anti-corruption protests and calls for the president's ouster Sunday.
Thousands took to the streets in the capital, Port-au-Prince and marched all around town shouting slogans, burning tires and in some instances flying black and red flags - in defiance of the country's official red and blue banner. The black and red flag was replaced in 1986 when Haiti's first democratically-elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, took power.
A young man in a dress shirt with a rosary wrapped around his wrist told VOA Creole, "The blue and red (flag) gave us insecurity. Under the red and blue flag we can't go to school. Under the red and blue flag inflation is sky high. Under the red and blue flag I can't go where I need to go because it's not safe. The president must leave as soon as possible."
"We're asking for the departure of the president because he is incapable of governing so he has to go," another protester marching downtown told VOA Creole.
"We want justice!" another chimed in. Those words are the principal theme of the PetroCaribe protest movement. Protesters are demanding transparency from the government regarding the alleged misuse of $3.8 billion. The money, due to Haiti under the PetroCaribe oil alliances signed between Venezuela and Caribbean nations starting in June 2005, had been earmarked for infrastructure and social and economic projects.
Protesters set fire to tires, blocking a street in downtown Port au Prince, Haiti on Nov 18, 2018.
According to reports, two people died during the protest in the capital and several others were injured after gunmen in unmarked cars fired into the crowd. Several protesters alleged in interviews with VOA Creole that policemen had been behind the wheel. But Michel Ange Gedeon, general director of Haiti's national police force (PNH) denied that. He said police had done their utmost to control their use of force against protesters and had investigated the circumstances of the two confirmed deaths finding police were not involved.
Protests were smaller in other major cities such as Jacmel, Gonaives, St. Marc, Jeremie and Cape Haitien, but the anger expressed was similar.
"We're in the street today because November 18 is a symbolic day. It was a decisive day for our ancestors - with the help of the gods - where they succeeded in uprooting the French forces. But today the same situation exists because even though we're not enslaved - per se - our rights are being violated - so we're in the streets asking to end this system... I'm talking about the kind of slavery that is political, economic and even social," a protester in Gonaives told VOA Creole.
Protesters hold red and black flags during protest in downtown Port au Prince, Haiti on Nov. 18, 2018.
President Jovenel Moise began the day with the first lady and members of his cabinet at an official ceremony commemorating the armed forces, and laying a wreath at a monument on the historic battle's anniversary. Traditionally, heads of state have traveled to the city of Vertieres in the north, where the battle occurred to lead official ceremonies there as well. Moise did not do that. Instead, he addressed the nation and called on citizens to work together to resolve the country's problems.
"My brothers and sisters, the time for fighting is over. Today, it's time to cooperate. Meaning it's time to put our heads together, to cooperate to break the cycle of blackouts, of poverty which has caused some of you to forget who you really are. It's time to cooperate to make a better nation we can be proud of for our children and our grandchildren," he said. "We won't forget our past. We understand clearly where we are, we will not forget."
The plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears - more anti-corruption protests are planned for Monday.
Yves Manuel in Port-au-Prince, Wilner Cherubin in Jacmel, Yvan Martin Jasmin in Cape Haitian, Exalus Mergenat in Gonaives and Makenson Charles in Jeremie contributed to this report.