|Haitians called for the prime minister to step down following the riots [AFP]
For years, Hernite Joseph scraped a living by selling imported chicken parts in the muddy markets of Port-Au-Prince’s seaside slums.
The three dollars or so she made each day used to be enough to take care of her unemployed husband and three children.
Now, she is struggling to stave off starvation.
“Everything has changed,” says Joseph, stabbing at a half-frozen chunk of poultry with a screwdriver.
“My kids are like toothpicks. Before, if you had $1.25, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil.”
“Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it’s not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With $1.25, you can’t even make a plate of rice for one child.”
Food prices are rising around the world, sparking protests and riots, but perhaps nowhere have they had such a devastating impact than in Haiti, where around 80 per cent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
The price of rice has nearly doubled since December.
In March, people began complaining of a hunger so torturous that it felt like their stomachs were being eaten away by bleach or battery acid.
In a matter of days, “Clorox hunger”, named after a brand of bleach, was being talked about in slums and villages across the country.
Growing tensions finally exploded on April 2 in the south-western city of Okay, the third largest in Haiti, where demonstrators clashed with United Nations peacekeepers and tore down the walls of a UN military base.
Thousands of people from the slums took to the streets, while local leaders demanded that the government end free its market policies and create community shops with subsidised prices.
Anger at the UN
They also called on the government to fix a date for the removal of the UN peacekeeping mission.
|Anger has grown at the presence of UN
peacekeepers in Haiti [Reuters]
Since arriving in June 2004, the UN troops have been credited with rooting out armed groups from the slums of Port-au-Prince and helping impose a degree of political stability.
But the peacekeepers have provoked deep resentment among Haitians, who say they prefer development to security and complain that the mission’s $500 million budget is wasted on troops and tanks.
In Port-au-Prince, thousands of protesters set up flaming barricades and threw rocks at the national palace, burned gas stations and looted businesses.
And across the countryside, farmers erected road blockades – one community dragged a vehicle chassis across the road – while residents from a fishing village flipped over a boat.
Demand for change
On Saturday, Rene Preval, the president, finally responded, promising to reduce the price of rice by nearly 16 per cent, while the Haitian senate voted to remove Jacques Edouard Alexis, the prime minister, from office.
The moves seem to have pacified the Haitian people – but only for now.
Many of those who participated in the protests are vowing to take to the streets again if food prices do not go down rapidly.
“The president needs to hurry,” said Jean Francois Bernard, a student who participated in the protests.
“The mobilisations will continue until we see results. Until now, we haven’t seen anything.”
Preval said the price at which importers sell a 110-pound sack of rice would drop from $51 to $43.
He also convinced three major importers to take a three-dollar cut in their profits, and secured three million dollars in international aid to cover the remaining five dollars per sack.
But the agreement with the importers is valid for only one month, and it is still not clear how much the price of rice will go down in the marketplaces, if at all.
The intermediaries who distribute rice have not yet agreed to also reduce their prices – on the street, a sack currently sells for more than $70.
“Reducing the price per sack by eight dollars won’t change anything,” said Gerald Baptiste, who sells rice by the can in the poor district of La Saline.
“A little can is still going to sell for three dollars. It’s not enough. The price needs to go down to two dollars at the most.”
‘Taiwan of the Caribbean’
Imported rice has become the most important food staple in Haiti.
|Global food crisis
Food riots have erupted in Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines and Haiti in the past month
In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to avoid food being seized from fields and warehouses
Prices in these countries for foodstuffs such as rice, wheat, sorghum and maize have doubled
Causes of crisis range from financial speculation on food commodities, desertification, population increases, China and India’s economic growth and use of grains to make biofuels
Cost of funding projects enabling governments to tackle food crisis could be up to $1.7bn
However world cereal production in 2008 is projected to increase by 2.6 per cent to a record 2,164 million tonnes
Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
Decades ago, rice was a luxury in Haiti, grown in the lush Artibonite valley and eaten on special occasions and Sundays.
After the removal from power of dictator Jean Claude-Duvalier in 1986, a US-backed military government slashed import taxes, allowing rice and other cheap imports from the US and the Dominican Republic to flood Haitian marketplaces.
But plans pushed by Washington to transform Haiti’s rural economy into an industrial force, capitalising on the country’s cheap labour to turn the country into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean” never bore fruit.
Instead, 20 years later, Haiti has little industry besides a handful of assembly plants where the minimum wage is less than two dollars a day, and the country’s agricultural production is mainly subsistence.
“In 1987, when rice began being imported at a cheap price, many people applauded,” said Preval in a televised speech last Wednesday aimed at stopping the protests.
“But cheap imported rice destroyed [locally grown] rice. Today, imported rice has become expensive and our national production is in ruins. That’s why subsidising imported food is not the answer.”
But Preval did just that on Saturday, faced with the threat of renewed protests if he did not take immediate action to reduce prices.
At the same time, Preval promised to relaunch agricultural production by supporting local farmers.
He said he hoped to cut the price of fertiliser in half with the help of the Venezuelan government, and announced plans to send an official from the agricultural ministry to Caracas on Tuesday.
Preval’s call for boosting national production may have struck right at the root of the problem of high food prices, but it may not be enough to calm tensions in the streets of Haiti.