By Dennis Sadowski
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The first day of a general strike designed to keep pressure on the government of President Michel Martelly to lower gasoline prices and schedule long overdue elections kept the streets of the Haitian capital eerily quiet.
Across the capital, schools did not open and most businesses were shuttered Feb. 9. A long line formed at the Eagle Supermarket on Delmas Road, just around the corner from the closed offices of Catholic Relief Services. People expressed frustration that they did not know about the closure and could not buy necessities for their families.
At mid-day Catholic News Service photographer Bob Roller and I ventured out with our driver and translator, Jean-Daniel Lafontant. Encountering one group of student protesters near the site of the earthquake-destroyed National Palace, we were told we were not “following the rule” to keep motor vehicles off the streets. One suggested that because we were driving around we might find a rock being thrown through the windshield of our vehicle. It mattered little that we were journalists surveying the silence on the streets.
Few vehicles were out and about, but the daily traffic congestion the capital experiences was gone. In many neighborhoods young boys played soccer on the traffic-free streets.
The National Police kept a watchful eye on the tense environment. Most officers were in groups of at least four. They held shotguns at the ready.
The two-day strike was the latest challenge to Haitian President Michel Martelly, who is being pressured on a variety of fronts. Since December opposition forces have mounted a series of demonstrations calling for Martelly to schedule parliamentary and presidential elections as planned. Some protesters have called for Martelly to step down.
A small group of senators blocked efforts by Martelly in December to schedule the elections, saying the conditions the president proposed favored his government. The impasse extended past Jan. 12, the fifth anniversary of the country’s devastating earthquake. Under Haiti’s constitution, because there was no election scheduled, the Parliament dissolved that same day, meaning that Martelly could rule by decree.
Haitians who voted for Martelly in 2011 have since become disenchanted with the former carnival singer’s governing ability. They are discouraged by his arrogant comments and by his inability to deliver on campaign promises he made to help the country recover from the earthquake.