PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Thousands of young Haitians spent 2019 on the streets, demanding President Jovenel Moise resign over his government's failure to prosecute years of unbridled corruption that siphoned billions in international aid into bank accounts overseas.
For now, Moise's opponents have failed.
Haiti's parliament shut down indefinitely in January because of the chaos, eliminating the check on presidential power that paralyzed Moise for years. Thursday marks the president's first month of ruling the country by decree.
But the reed-thin former banana farmer looks nothing like the strongmen of Haiti's past. With weak political support at home and an international community wary of democratic backsliding, Moise has issued no significant decrees and billions in development aid is blocked.
Three years into his five-year term, the president appears barely able to enforce his will beyond the gates of the National Palace downtown and his relatively modest rented home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. In the city below, gangs rule entire neighborhoods and a wave of kidnappings is terrifying ordinary Haitians.
"A few hundred feet from the National Palace, armed gangs control the streets," said Paul Denis, who served as justice minister under President René Preval. "But the president who leads us, what is he doing? What is he doing to impose order, to render these bandits harmless? Absolutely nothing."
The United States, United Nations and Organization of American States are trying to midwife a deal between Moise and his opposition that would lead to declaration of a unity government and avert a return to chaos on an island that's seen two coups, U.S. intervention, a U.N. peacekeeping mission and a devastating earthquake in the 34 years since the end of a decades-long dictatorship.
"The president of the republic has no power and the people demand everything from the president of the republic," Moise, 51, lamented last week in an interview with The Associated Press "The president is responsible for everything,"
In the vacuum, insecurity is growing.
Two years after the departure of U.N. peacekeepers, young bandits with automatic weapons randomly halt cars on the main routes in and out of the capital. The economy appears to be shrinking. Electricity comes only a few hours a day in most of the capital. Some police are protesting working conditions and demanding a union, which the government says would be illegal.
"The people have been thrown to their fate," said Edel Berger, a slender 29-year-old apprentice lawyer who was walking to work in a suit Tuesday morning despite the 90-degree heat. "We're all in danger. Every Haitian needs to buy a gun to protect themselves. It's the law of the jungle."
Along with the Canadian and French ambassadors,, diplomats from the U.S., U.N. and Organization of American States are trying to persuade as many political players as possible to agree on an agenda for talks and sit down to negotiate.
"The U.S. would really want to see forward movement here," Ambassador Michele Sison told the AP. "Getting a political accord in place that would lead to a functioning government, to be able to move this country forward and restart, we would hope, economic growth, bring in a functioning government that could serve the people."
Backed by the international community, Moise is demanding to stay in office until he can oversee the passage of a new constitution that strengthens the presidency and eliminate the ability of just a few opposition legislators to block virtually all laws and appointments.
Members of the moderate opposition say they are open to such a deal. The hard-line politicians who brought the country to a halt last fall demanding Moise's immediate resignation are also talking about joining negotiations.
"The opposition has never rejected dialogue as a means of resolving the crisis," said André Michel, a lawyer and hard-line opposition spokesman. "All of this should be on the table: When should the president leave power? Should the president leave power in three weeks, this week, in two months?"
Michel said the opposition's non-negotiable demand was the release of about 150 opposition members jailed over the last year and the cancellation of arrest warrants for another 50 people. Sison, the U.S. ambassador, said the Trump administration's central demand was holding legislative elections as soon as technically possible.
Representatives of the president and the moderate opposition held three days of fruitless talks late last month at the mission of the papal envoy to Port-au-Prince.
Sidelined in the negotiations is the anti-corruption movement known as the Petro Challengers, which began on social media in 2018 and spread onto the streets. The movement was sparked by reports from government investigations into the misdirection of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from PetroCaribe, a now-defunct Venezuelan program providing subsidized oil to Caribbean countries.
Several of the young, well-educated leaders of the movement said Moise had proven himself incapable of governing and should immediately hand power to a technocratic transition government that could oversee prosecutions for corruption and the reconstruction of public institutions.
"We've said that we don't want to continue with Jovenel Moise, that we want a transition that would move the Haitian people toward honest elections, and the international community has said, 'No, we're going to continue with Jovenel Moise,'' and the meanwhile the situation is degenerating every day,' said James Beltis, a 37-year-old sociologist and spokesman for one of the movement's main groupings.
Jean-Lylus Louis-Jean, 57, earns a little more than $100 a month as a sanitation supervisor for the city of Port-au-Prince. On Tuesday morning he stood in the shade of a cinderblock wall in the Delmas 33 neighborhood waiting for a truck to come pick up a long pile of trash that had been dumped along the sidewalk.
He said he felt in danger every day in Port-au-Prince from the gangs of muggers and kidnappers that roam the city, and things were no better in his hometown of Las Cayes, a town on the southern coast where he once felt completely secure.
"I"m risking my life every day being in streets," he said. "Young men are killing each other for pocket change. The only thing I have keeping me safe is God watching over me."
Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin announced Wednesday that police would begin searching vehicles at random in an attempt to crack down on kidnapping. And he said Moise would pass a budget by degree that would raise the salaries of police and other public employees.
"We are working secure the population," he said.
But after months without protests, Port-au-Prince saw hundreds of university students and other demonstrators return to the streets Wednesday in a demonstration against the wave of kidnappings. Protesters chanted "Down with kidnapping!" and destroyed stands set up for carnival celebrations this month. Police fired tear gas to disperse them.
"We not going to stop," said Mario Brice, an unemployed 34-year-old. "Jovenel have to leave office, the country is not moving anywhere ... Look around, it's nothing but guns and people being kidnapped."