Haitian Catholics march for political reform as protests spread

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - As Haiti entered a sixth week of violent anti-government protests over corruption and economic woes, Catholic leaders held a rare march on Tuesday calling for a resolution to the crisis that has paralyzed the country and sweeping political reform.

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Thousands joined the peaceful march throughout the capital Port-au-Prince that underscored how more and more sectors of society are rising up against what they view as not only President Jovenel Moise’s bad governance but also a broken political system.

“Can we advance with the current political regime and this system in place? We should ... build anew,” said the Reverend Firto Regis, spokesman for the Haitian Conference of Religious.

There have been several waves of protests since Moise took power in February 2017, but this is the longest.

While protesters originally were calling for Moise to fix the country’s problems, they have been dismayed by his inaction and are now calling outright for his resignation.

Last week, four of the seven allies Moise nominated to a commission aiming to find a path out of the political crisis resigned from it after he ruled out ending his mandate early in a speech. They said all options needed to be on the table.

“The Catholic Church usually holds religious processions but today it is holding a march ... for the deliverance of Haiti, because we are in a disastrous situation” said Rose Marie Bolimer, a school teacher.

Bolimer complained that educational institutions have still not re-opened following the summer break due to the protests.

“The situation is becoming harder day by day, we do not have enough to eat, we have no security,” she said. “And we have a president who does absolutely nothing, on the contrary, he plans on killing us more.”

The march came as one of Haiti’s top hotels, the Best Western in Port-au-Prince, confirmed it was closing its doors at the end of the month, meaning dozens of layoffs and underscoring the damage being done to tourism.

“My only aim now is to leave because I do not know how I will be able to keep supporting my family, there is no work here,” said Alexandre Pierre, a 40-year-old receptionist at the hotel, who has two young children.

“Even if I decide to set up some kind of shop, it’s not possible because everything is closed here, blocked.”

Georges Sassine, the president of Haiti’s manufacturing industry association, told Reuters that companies producing goods for sale locally had reduced their workforce by 40%.

He said Haitians wanted an enduring solution to the crisis, not simply a handover to another politician who would continue to defend the interests of only a handful.

Sassine’s association was one of the more than 100 business or civil society groups which earlier this month signed a document laying out the framework for a possible transition towards a better political system including electoral reform.

Reporting by Andres Martinez Casares and Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Paul Simao