PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Escalating street protests have pushed Haiti’s already dire social crisis this week into what regional leaders described as “low-intensity civil war,” leaving residents of the capital cut off from the outside world and scrambling for basic necessities like drinking water and food.
Protesters set up barricades made up of debris, felled trees and tires throughout the capital, Port-au-Prince, looted shops and humanitarian warehouses and attacked banks and residences of pro-government politicians and better-off citizens.
Simmering outbreaks of unrest throughout the island nation have coalesced into the largest wave of protests in years following the government’s announcement last Sunday that it would raise the country’s highly subsidized fuel prices.
The protests quickly broadened into a general, visceral rejection of Haiti’s dire living conditions, characterized by widespread hunger, a lack of basic services, omnipresent gang violence, runaway inflation and the weak rule of a caretaker prime minister, Ariel Henry. Mr. Henry took power following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year.
As Mr. Henry’s government’s already tenuous hold on the country has largely evaporated during the unrest, other factions have attempted to fill the power vacuum.
An opposition leader, Moïse Jean Charles, called on supporters to shut down the banks at a rally in the northern city of Cap Haitien, prompting the crowd to chant “we are going to set them on fire.”
A prominent gang leader, Jimmy Chérizier, known as Barbecue, said Haiti’s poor must depose Mr. Henry at a demonstration he held in his stronghold in Port-of-Prince on Thursday.
“The system must be overturned,” he said in a video address posted from the rally. “The real gangs and the real bandits are those who wear suits.”
Officials from two countries that monitor Haiti closely say politicians and businessmen financing the gangs may be exacerbating the unrest, tapping into the general outrage to force Mr. Henry to roll back economic measures that hurt their revenues.
Mr. Henry’s decision to more than double the price of gasoline and diesel this week could reduce profits from the lucrative trade in black market fuel, which is controlled by groups of Haitian elites, they say.
And in recent months, Haiti’s customs officers, on American insistence, have stepped up port inspections, uncovering large shipments of illegal weapons and ammunition, and have increased tax receipts from legal imports. The rise in tax revenues has come at the expense of contraband runners and Haitian businessmen who rely on the sale of duty-free products.
Mr. Henry has responded to the protests by suspending all gun permits and holding an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday, where ministers considered declaring a state of emergency and a national curfew, according to an official familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to discuss private discussions.
As protests accelerated, Mr. Henry has largely retreated from public view.
“The solution to the country’s problems is not found in burning barricades, disorders, destruction of car windows or people’s goods,” he said on Sunday, in his last public address.
Diplomats and security officials say his government has few means of bringing the situation under control. Chronic fuel shortages and growing gang power have decimated the police presence on the streets, and Haiti largely disbanded its military in 1994.
Some police officers have not shown up for duty this week, unwilling to risk their lives for a deeply unpopular government seen as illegitimate by most Haitians.
But even if protesters succeed in ousting Mr. Henry, Haiti stands little chance of returning to stability in the foreseeable future, officials and diplomats say. In his 14 months in power, Mr. Henry has made little progress in meeting his stated goal: to pacify the country and reform its constitution to enable free and fair elections to replace Mr. Moïse.
Instead, under his rule, the country has slipped deeper into violence and political dysfunction, all but precluding a peaceful transition, officials and diplomats say.
On Tuesday, gang members killed three police officers in an ambush in an upscale Port-of-Prince neighborhood, posting videos of their bodies on social media. The officers’ deaths followed the murder of two local journalists by a gang battling for control of a working-class area of the capital.
Mr. Henry’s office and Haiti’s national police did not respond to requests for comment.
By Friday morning, parts of Port-of-Prince, a city of three million, resembled a war zone. Young people manned barricades erected just minutes away from the National Palace while burning debris and felled trees littered the streets. Occasional police patrols zipped through the empty streets of the middle-class neighborhoods of Lalue and Champ de Mars and residents, mostly young women, scoured houses and kiosks for drinking water.
Businesses, government offices and many embassies remained closed, and the government of neighboring Dominican Republic evacuated its diplomats and sent soldiers to the border with Haiti.
Haiti’s descent into chaos has triggered growing calls for international intervention from nearby Caribbean nations affected by the exodus of tens of thousands of Haitians from their country.
“Haiti cannot wait any longer. Its current situation can be defined as a low intensity civil war,” the president of the Dominican Republic, Luis Abinader, told the Organization of American States in Washington on Thursday. “We must act responsibly and we must act now.” The organization has not issued a public response.
In July, the prime minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, called Haiti a “failed state,” and told local media that Caribbean leaders are considering opening direct talks with Haitian gang leaders to solve the country’s political crisis. The Bahamas has been struggling to deal with a record number of Haitians trying to cross its waters in overloaded boats on the way to the United States.
Mr. Abinader has called for the construction of a wall to stem the flow of Haitians into the Dominican Republic, describing the collapse of the rule of law in Haiti a national security threat.
On Thursday, he said that while the international community has always sought a local political solution in Haiti, it should start considering other options, a comment that raised the specter of military intervention.
Haiti has a long and traumatic history of foreign interventions, including a nearly 20-year occupation by U.S. Marines in early 20th century, and, most recently, the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers following a coup in 2004.
Shortly after the assassination of Mr. Moïse in July, his then prime minister, who briefly replaced him in office, called on the U.S. to send soldiers to restore order and secure critical infrastructure.
The proposal was rebuffed by the Biden administration, which has struggled to balance its support for a local solution with a desire to reduce the influx of Haitians on its borders. The United States has continued backing Mr. Henry even as evidence emerged of his links to the main suspect in the assassination of Mr. Moïse and as the country has descended into virtual anarchy.
“The Biden administration doesn’t care about the security situation in Haiti, what they care about is keeping a government that continues to accept Haitian deportees,” said Pierre Espérance, a prominent Haitian human rights activist. “What they should do is start to listen to the desires of the Haitian people.”
Milo Milfort and Andre Paultre reported from Port-au-Prince, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Mexico City. Maria Abi-Habib contributed reporting from New York, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.