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Hungry for change in Haiti

Amid riots and political upheaval, Haiti needs the right kind of relief.

By / April 22, 2008


This month's riots and a change in Haiti's government aren't extraordinary news items; upheavals in this Caribbean island are as frequent as seasonal changes. What is significant is that the democratic process to remove the prime minister by the legislative body defied a tradition of violent overthrows and military interventions. And it worked.

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President René Préval, who himself overcame maneuvering by opponents before taking office in 2006, must now choose a new government. It won't be easy. There is no majority in the bicameral parliament. Various sectors hope to regain some of the power they lost in recent years, including those loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The charismatic but controversial leader was forced into exile in 2004, two years shy of completing his five-year term. In addition, industrialists, who profited from Haiti's dysfunction, hope to influence the direction of the new administration, as do former Army officers who lost their status when the military was dismantled in 1995.

Choosing a prime minister who will satisfy various, if not competing agendas, is a formidable challenge. As are rising food and fuel costs. Lavi che, the Haitian expression for the high cost of living, was the battle cry in this month's demonstrations that degenerated into rampant lootings and at least six deaths, including that of a United Nations peacekeeper. Today, Haitians jest that Clorox is the best medicine for their hunger. If that doesn't work, they recommend battery acid because it kills more than the pain.

Increasing food prices are not unique to Haiti – global food reserves are at their lowest in nearly four decades and continue to fall. The World Food Program sent out an extraordinary appeal to donors for an additional $500 million in March. Food cost inflation in the US is the highest in 17 years. The World Bank warned that civil disturbances may be triggered in 33 countries. To circumvent this, governments from Central America to Indonesia are curbing exports and lifting import duties on staples.

Préval quelled the worst of Haiti's protests by, among other steps, cutting the cost of rice, which has doubled in recent months to $70 for a 110-lb. bag. The World Bank has promised Haiti $10 million in emergency aid; Venezuela plans to send chicken, mortadella, milk, and lentils.