WASHINGTON/GONAIVES, HAITI - "Down with Jovenel! Down with Jovenel!" a group of PetroChallengers shouted Friday in Gonaives, a lush, port city 142 kilometers (88 miles) north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Anti-corruption activists, millennials, students and media-savvy young professionals are demanding President Jovenel Moise and members of his government, who are accused of fraud and mismanagement of funds, be brought to justice. The president has denied the allegations and rejects calls for his resignation.
The #PetroCaribe protests have swept Haiti's sixth-largest city since Sunday, echoing those in the capital. Gonaives is known as the city of Independence, because it is there that the leader of the revolution and the nation's first ruler, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared Haiti's independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804.
Protesters burned tires, blocked roads, threw trash in the streets and participated in special voodoo ceremonies Friday to show their displeasure with the current political and economic situation.
"The country can't live like this anymore. We've suffered too much. Jovenel must leave power and be judged for his crimes," a man in his 20s told VOA Creole. He said they would stay in the streets until the president resigns.
"The president, his wife and kids, former president [Michel] Martelly — they made themselves and their friends millionaires, but we the poor, we were left with nothing," he said.
Allegations against Moise
Moise is accused of fraudulently benefiting from funds generated by the PetroCaribe oil alliance with Venezuela.
The allegations were made in an official report handed to Haiti's Senate on May 31. Haiti's Superior Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation (Cour Superieure de Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif), a nonpartisan institution tasked with overseeing the government's budget, spending and allocation of funds, prepared the report detailing irregularities and alleged abuse of funds generated under the PetroCaribe agreement. The $3.8 billion in oil revenue that went missing had been earmarked for infrastructure projects, education and social programs.
"Your president, the one you voted for, is not corrupt. Your president will never be involved in corruption," Moise said in a national address Wednesday, his first public comment since nationwide protests began Sunday.
"The justice system must do its job, investigate. Those who stole and mismanaged government funds will be held accountable," the president said. "The legal process will be fair and free of political bias."
He ended the speech with a warning: "I will not allow anyone to spread chaos and desolation in the country under any circumstances."
But the speech failed to calm an angry nation or the PetroChallengers, who are determined to speak truth to power and change the way their country is run.
"Jovenel has to know we understand what he's doing. We are students, we went to school. We want the people to open their eyes and see what Jovenel is doing to them. He has already proven it. Although there's a climate of insecurity, he has been unscathed. People are dying of hunger but he is fine," a protester said.
The week of protests have shut down government offices such as customs, the internal revenue service, businesses and schools.