Haitian leader's answer to food crisis doesn't satisfy critics
Opposition lawmakers have called for Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis resignation in the wake of violent demonstrations over the rising price of food.
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Thousands of people from the slums took to the streets, while community leaders demanded the government roll back free-market policies and create community stores with subsidized prices. They also called on the government to fix a date for the removal of the UN peacekeeping mission.Skip to next paragraph
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Since arriving in June 2004 following political unrest, 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.
The prime minister and a leading senator accused the Okay protests of being financed by drug traffickers, only inflaming tensions. By Monday, the protests had spread like wildfire across the country.
In the capital, the demonstrations seem to be less organized and more violent, often degenerating into rioting and looting. Many protesters are demanding the immediate removal of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.
On Wednesday, Préval did not promise to make a change in his government, and his speech offered only long-term solutions, signaling the importance of national production in keeping food prices low.
"In 1987, when rice began being imported at a cheap price, many people applauded," said Préval. "But cheap imported rice destroyed [locally grown] rice. Today, imported rice has become expensive, and our national production is in ruins. That's why subsidizing imported food is not the answer."
After the ouster of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, a series of US-backed military juntas slashed tariffs and cheap imports from the United States and Dominican Republic flooded Haitian marketplaces. But plans designed in Washington to transform Haiti's economy, capitalizing on the country's cheap labor 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 $2 a day, and the country's agricultural production is mainly subsistence.
Préval's call for launching national production may have struck right at the root of the problem, but with the Haitian masses still in open rebellion, it did not seem to be enough to calm the tensions.
"I thought Préval was going to talk about something that has importance for us today," says Louidi Saintilome, an unemployed protester standing in front of a flaming tire and a cloud of thick billowing black smoke. "Préval can't talk to us about agrarian reform anymore. The situation has degenerated too much."