WASHINGTON / PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haiti's government canceled Mardi Gras celebrations Sunday in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in the aftermath of a gunfight between protesting off-duty national police officers and members of the army that left two dead. At least two others were wounded.
"In order to avoid a bloodbath, the government would like to inform the Haitian people and Carnival revelers that we have decided to cancel Carnival festivities in Port-au-Prince," said a statement sent to local journalists by presidential press secretary Eddy Jackson Alexis.
The unsigned statement, stamped with a government seal and sent through WhatsApp, also included an appeal for calm.
Sunday's protest turned violent when off-duty police officers, allegedly angry over the firings last week of their colleagues and the coordinator of the union effort, faced off with members of the armed forces near the National Palace.
The Haitian Armed Forces condemned the gunfight Monday.
"We bitterly deplore these acts," a statement sent to reporters said, "which can only be the work of individuals who want to destroy their own country."
The protesting officers issued their own press statement condemning the violence, which they blamed on "bad actors."
"The National Police Union (SPNH) condemns not only the violence, but also the fact that these actions were conducted by people of ill will, pretending to be police officers and aiming to discredit the legitimate effort to unionize the force," the statement said.
Members of the National Police Force, PNH, have been protesting in Port-au-Prince and other major cities on a weekly basis since last year, demanding that they be allowed to form a union.
They say they cannot afford to live on $19,000 Haitian gourdes (about $200) a year, and decry that they have no health or life insurance.
Last week, angry protesters burned down some of the wooden stands on the Carnival route after officials fired five of their colleagues involved in the unionizing effort. The officers told VOA Creole they should not be counted on to provide security during Carnival if their commanding officers don't care enough about them to allow them to form a union.
In the lead-up to Carnival, many residents expressed concern about whether there were adequate security measures in place to protect those participating in the popular annual event.
"It's important that when there is a problem, officials address it and try to understand what's behind it and take measures to resolve it," government lawyer Camille Leblanc told VOA Creole. He said although the police have the right to ask for a union, they should not use violence to do so.
"We cannot accept a society where people with weapons try to impose their point of view on the nation," Leblanc said.
Abelson Gros Negre, spokesperson for the police union movement, rejected the accusation that police were responsible for the violence.
"We distance ourselves from all violence and malfeasance being done. We are not behind it. Our focus is forming a union to protect the rights of our police officers, which is our constitutional guarantee," Negre said.
The police are asking officials to rescind their decision to fire five officers last week — among them Yannick Joseph, coordinator of the union movement.
In Port-au-Prince on Monday was a familiar, unwelcome sight — makeshift roadblocks and burning tires.
"We support the police officers, and we stand by them," a resident told VOA Creole. "We're waiting for (President) Jovenel Moise to leave, and we also don't support the army. We don't recognize its existence,"
But other residents said they were tired of the protests.
"Over the past three months, look at how many people have lost their jobs. They (protesters) couldn't even wait another two months! They're back at it in the streets. It's demoralizing," a visibly frustrated man told VOA Creole. "Haitian people open your eyes. This isn't being done for the good of the country. I don't even believe there's a police problem."
During a midday press conference Monday, Normil Rameau, director-general of the national police force, called the protest "illegitimate."
"I came from the heart of the police force, just like every other police officer. Therefore, every officer's problem is the problem of the director-general," Rameau said. "By the same token, the commanding officers of the force also share this burden. I want the men and women of the police force to know their demands are simply illegitimate. That is why, since I was charged with leading the police force, I have addressed their demands with central command officials who have started working on improving their living and working conditions."
Rameau called on protesters to avoid "infiltrators," and reminded them that the force is mandated to remain nonpartisan.
"Our preference and allegiance is to protect the Haitian people, to (adhere to) the laws of the republic and (respect) the regulations of the national police force," Rameau said.
He vowed to restore law and order across the nation as soon as possible, and offered condolences to the fallen officers' families.
Support from Moise
Moise tweeted Sunday that he is committed to continuing to support the PNH.
"Every day that passes, the police should become stronger, more professional. When the police force is more professional, the people reap the benefits. That is why I'm gifting the institution several new armored vehicles to use during their operations."
Moise also tweeted that he had given orders to increase the line of credit available for police officers, as well as the limit on their debit cards.
It is unclear whether Carnival festivities will go on as planned in the northern cities of Cape Haitian and Gonaives.