WASHINGTON / PORT-AU-PRINCE - Thousands of people took to the streets of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Thursday to participate in a peaceful March for Life in honor of International Human Rights Day.
Protesters marched against kidnapping, murder, rape and countless human rights violations they say happen daily with impunity.
"On International Human Rights Day, we want to send a message to Jovenel Moise (the president of Haiti) that our constitution guarantees our freedom of expression, our right to demand government accountability, the right to demand our rights be safeguarded," a protester told VOA as he explained why he decided to participate in the march.
Haiti has seen a spike in kidnappings and gang-related crimes that have terrorized citizens of all social classes living the capital.
"We consider the kidnappings to be state kidnappings," another protester said. "We say this because it's incredible how this kidnapping model has invaded the entire country."
A young man draped in black and red, former colors of the Haitian flag, was visibly angry.
"Our living conditions are worse than animals! They call us savages; they describe us as terrorists, whereas we don't even have enough food to eat! This insecurity is all we know," he said.
On November 26, Moise issued a decree that established a National Agency for Investigations (ANI) and spelled out stiff punishments for crimes against public security. A guilty verdict mandates a jail sentence of between 30 and 50 years and a fine of between 2 and 200 million Haitian gourdes (over $28,600).
Among public security offenses now forbidden is the burning of tires on the nation’s streets. Demonstrators ignored it and went about setting fire to tires along the protest route.
"President Jovenel Moise told us we can't burn tires on the street — well today we showed him we are up to the challenge. We are burning tires right here in front of the national palace, and if he keeps messing with us, we'll go burn them in front of his home," said a protester standing near the flames.
"The burning tires represent democracy, freedom, Uncle Sam, no to dictatorship; they represent our opposition to what the president is doing," another protester told VOA.
"We aren't hiding behind face masks; we aren't wearing makeup — we want to show our faces clearly — since we've been branded 'terrorists' [by the president]. And we're waiting for those who are coming to arrest these so-called terrorists," said a protester wearing sunglasses.
Moise has been ruling by decree since January 2020 because the parliament is out of session. The terms of two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate expired months before the pandemic hit the Caribbean nation in March.
Former opposition Senator Antonio Cheramy, who joined the march, accused Moise of plotting to bring dictatorship back to Haiti. He called on Moise to resign on February 7, 2021.
"He doesn't issue decrees against the people who are raping your children, but he does issue decrees that threaten all the democratic gains we fought hard to attain in 1987. Today, we say no to kidnapping, and we will not surrender to Jovenel's threats,” the senator told the crowd. “February 7, 2021, is coming. I applaud all Haitians who are out here today, this is a start, and we should keep protesting until life gets back to normal.”
The senator also decried the countless violations of basic human rights.
With regards to his departure date, Moise has insisted he will leave office on February 7, 2022 – five years to the day since he took power. The United Nations, Organization of American States and United States support that timeline. But the date is disputed by some Haitian citizens and opposition politicians who say Moise should step down in February 2021 regardless of whether elections have been held.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on the Haitian government to hold elections as soon as possible. Moise responded by naming a provisional electoral council (CEP), which is currently working on organizing a vote.
Former Senator Moise Jean Charles, leader of the Pitit Dessalines opposition party, also joined protesters.
"We don't have (adequate) hospitals, schools; people don't have access to food; there are multiple human rights violations happening. We are dealing with insecurity — so we're out here today to denounce these things," he told the crowd. "This time we want everyone to know our aim is to overthrow this system of government, which acts with impunity while enjoying support from the (foreign) embassies."
Senator Moise has been vocal about his opposition to foreign interference in Haiti's internal affairs, and even organized a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince in November to express his disdain.
When the protesters arrived in front of the Ministry of Justice, they were dispersed by the national police.
December 10 commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. The landmark document spells out the rights and freedoms all human beings are meant to enjoy.
In Haiti, protesters accuse the government of disrespecting the most basic and sacred right of all, which is the right to life.