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Haiti vows to trim expenses and investigate PetroCaribe amid protests

Haiti vows to trim expenses and investigate PetroCaribe amid protests
A demonstrator throws a rock at a police car during a protest against former government officials accused of misusing Petrocaribe funds and the country's inflation rate in Port-au-Prince, Haiti February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jeanty Junior Augustin -
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Jeanty Junior Augustin(Reuters)
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SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The Haitian government vowed to deepen the investigation into alleged corruption in the PetroCaribe oil programme and to reduce its expenses, seeking to meet some of protestors' demands as demonstrations roil the country.

During a televised address on Saturday night, Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant announced nine measures aimed at alleviating the country's economic crisis. Ceant said the government will reduce its expenses by 30 percent, meet with the private sector to try to raise the minimum wage and appoint a new director to intensify the investigation into alleged corruption by PetroCaribe.

"I and the members of the government listen to (the opposition's) voice, we hear his cry, we understand his anger and indignation," Ceant said.

Since Feb. 7, thousands of demonstrators have called for President Jovenel Moise and Ceant to resign and for an independent probe into the whereabouts of funds from the PetroCaribe agreement, an alliance between Caribbean countries and Venezuela.

The agreement’s preferential terms for energy purchases were meant to help free up funds to aid development in Haiti, which has been hammered by natural disasters and is ranked as the poorest in the Americas, according to the World Bank.

Ceant warned that the protests risked touching off a humanitarian crisis.

"The population suffers a lot, because blocked roads cannot deliver water to drink, food, gasoline. It is almost impossible to have electricity," said Ceant, who had previously kept silent during the protests, which have reportedly killed several people and injured many more.

Since the protests broke out, several foreign governments, including the United States and Canada, have urged citizens to avoid travel to Haiti.

Demonstrations are expected to resume this week.

To address the economic crisis, the government will trim expenses by reducing trips abroad and the hiring of advisers, Ceant said. The government will also do more to seek foreign investment to reenergize the economy, he added.

Moise also urged dialogue between government and the opposition during a speech on Thursday.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the Economic Forum of the Private Sector, a Haitian business group, welcomed the government's calls for dialogue but said the crisis was the result of Moise's "lack of leadership."

(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu López; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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