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.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Holding a rusty machete in one hand and a dried palm frond in the other, Vilner Chery stood defiantly in front of his community's road blockade, a three-foot high barricade made of boulders, tree trunks, and car parts.

As part of the nationwide protest over rising food prices, Mr. Chery and his neighbors blocked Haiti's second-most important highway Monday, and have not budged since then.

"Our children are hungry and we can't feed them," he says. "We know we have a president in this country. So we're forced to get out on the street and cry for help to the people who have the capacity to do something for us. That's why we put up the barricades to block the cars. The president must do something about this."

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After demonstrations turned violent and street clashes erupted between United Nations peacekeepers and protesters, Haitian President René Préval called for an end to the rioting that has killed at least five people.

On Wednesday, responding to demonstrators' demands for price relief on foodstuffs for the first time, Mr. Préval promised to subsidize the prices of Haitian-grown products, but refused to do the same for imported food.

But opposition lawmakers say he has done "too little, too late." On Thursday, 16 of Haiti's 27 senators signed a letter demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis in the wake of the rioting that shut down the capital, Port-au-Prince, as thousands set up flaming barricades, threw rocks at the national palace, burned gas stations, and looted businesses.

"The proposals of the president, as good as they may be for the future of the country, do not solve the immediate problems of the population," stated the letter signed by the opposition.

Food prices are rising around the world, but perhaps nowhere have they had such a devastating impact than in Haiti, where around 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Since US troops whisked away former Frmer President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile during an armed rebellion in February 2004, the prices of rice and beans have nearly doubled, and in the past six months, basic goods have risen 30 percent, according to the Haitian Ministry of Commerce and Industry. In March, people began complaining of severe hunger.

Growing tensions exploded last week in the city of Okay, the third largest in Haiti.

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.

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."

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