PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti- Haiti’s usually bustling capital came to a halt Saturday as many shops and businesses closed for a one-day general strike to protest the interim government’s failure to counter a surge in violence that has claimed hundreds of lives in recent months.
Streets normally choked with traffic were desolate as banks, supermarkets, gas stations and retail stores shuttered their doors in observance of the strike called by Haiti’s Chamber of Commerce. Several street stalls and car repair shops in downtown Port-au-Prince, however, stayed open.
The group, Haiti’s largest private sector body, is calling for tougher tactics against crime and gun violence that has engulfed Port-au-Prince since ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country amid an uprising last year.
The strike comes as the U.S.-backed interim government tries to convince disillusioned citizens and a skeptical international community that Haiti is stable enough for general elections in October and November.
Armed ex-soldiers who helped overthrow Aristide in a February 2004 revolt still control much of the countryside, while pro- and anti-Aristide militants wage frequent gun-battles in the gritty slums of the capital.
More than 400 people _ including 34 police officers _ have died since September in clashes between police, former military and pro-Aristide militants and common criminals.
“How are people going to vote with people running around with guns ?” said Robert-Jean Argant, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody is asking who will be the next victim. People are being slaughtered left and right and nothing is really being done.”
Argant said all 300 members of his group and many other businesses joined the strike, called three days after robbers gunned down a shopkeeper at his grocery store the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville.
Interim officials say they’re doing the best they can with limited funds and only a few thousand police in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, where billboards advertise private security firms and bulletproofing for car windows.
“We have only 3,000 police for a country of 8 million, and experts say we need a force of at least 40,000,” Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said Friday at an aid conference in Cayenne, French Guiana, where donors approved US$1 billion (750 million euros) worth of infrastructure projects to jump-start the delayed rebuilding process.
Latortue said Haiti needed to train at least another 2,000 police officers before elections. Many police were killed or abandoned their posts during the rebellion that ousted Aristide.
Escalating violence has also prompted criticism of the 7,400-strong U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with supporting Haiti’s police and stabilizing the country ahead of elections. U.N. officials, meanwhile, have complained that alleged police abuse is undermining efforts to fight violence in slums.
The Brazil-led force for months has been planning a large-scale effort to disarm militants, but U.N. envoy Juan Gabriel Valdes has said the current security crisis would make people reluctant to give up their guns.
“We see the U.N. driving around in their armored vehicles but a lot of us wonder if it’s just for show,” Argant said.
The violence has hit the private sector hard, forcing many businesses to close before nightfall and deterring newcomers from entering the field, Argant said.
Haiti’s economy shrank by about 4 percent last year, battered by fallout from the rebellion and devastating floods in May and September, according to the International Monetary fund.