PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Traffic was minimal in the normally clogged streets of Haiti’s capital on Monday, after a key minibus drivers union called a two-day general strike to protest high fuel prices.
“The price of gasoline has fallen on the world market, but in Haiti, the poorest country in the world, the authorities do not follow this trend,” said Fritzner Jean, who drives a colorful pickup-turned-minibus, known locally as “tap-tap”, the Caribbean nation’s main form of public transport.
“We want the state to really lower prices because it’s too expensive for us. Look at the hunger that prevails in the country. We cannot tolerate that,” Jean said.
In an effort to avoid the strike, the government announced lower fuel prices on Friday, with gasoline dropping to 200 gourdes ($4.30) per gallon from 215 ($4.62), and diesel down to 167 ($3.59) from 177 ($3.80) gourdes.
Those prices, however, were deemed insufficient by the tap-tap drivers union.
Prime Minister Evans Paul, without further comment, wrote on his Twitter account at midday: “I say no to those who want to smash the Republic.” (French: “Je dis non aux casseurs de la République.”)
Protesters put up barricades of burning tires at several key intersections in the capital. “We are blocking every tap-tap driver who wants to work,” said a man who was pulling a car over. He would identify himself only as “Rodney.”
“We are getting the passengers out, without violence. For sure it annoys people but the population understand. We have to be united, otherwise we are dead,” he said.
The cash is badly needed to pay off Haiti’s mounting fuel debt of more than $1.5 billion with Venezuela’s preferential PetroCaribe program, which allows countries to receive oil while deferring payment over 25 years at an interest rate as low as 1 percent.
Haiti is also in the midst of a political crisis after the prime minister was forced to resign and parliament was dissolved over the failure to hold municipal and legislative elections.
The strike was being observed in provincial towns, making access to the north of the country particularly difficult.
Without public transportation, the capital’s industrial park, home to several textile factories, authorized employees to stay home from work. The Ministry of Communication put out assurances that school buses would be circulating as usual on Monday, but many parents kept their children at home. (Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)