Hungry for change in Haiti

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

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.

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.

With the vast majority of Haiti's 8.5 million trying to survive on just $2 a day, eking out even an extra penny is as difficult as the government's challenge of providing electricity – or potable water, inaccessible to 75 percent of the population. It is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

It wasn't always this way. Haiti used to be the lushest island in the region; rice and coffee were major exports. But political turmoil, mismanagement, lack of planning, deforestation, and natural disasters have taken their toll. Today, less than 2 percent of the country is forested.

The international community has a stake in Haiti because 99 percent of Haiti's budget comes from abroad. The US cares because Haiti is just 500 miles from Florida. When things turn sour there, it becomes a domestic problem here.

There are things that we could, and should, do differently. For immediate relief, Washington should grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians living in the United States. TPS is awarded to undocumented immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict and environmental disasters: it requires nothing more than the president's signature. Citizens from seven countries currently profit from TPS, but Haitians have never benefited from this status. This is ironic, given that this month the US banned government officials from traveling to Haiti and advised the 19,000 American citizens living there to leave.

Haiti has 2,500 miles of roads, only a quarter of which are paved. Rather than pay consultants a daily stipend that exceeds a Haitian's yearly income, send technicians to tarmac roads that will facilitate the distribution of locally grown food. Put in an irrigation system that will diminish damage from seasonal flooding. Stock cargo containers with fertilizers and seeds, not used clothing. Teach residents desperate for work how to set up purification systems for garbage that can be landscaped rather than dumped into the surrounding waters.

Encourage the Haitian diaspora to return – 80 percent of college-educated Haitians live abroad. Put their expertise to use. Similarly, invite the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor African women to plant more than 30 million trees, to work with Haiti's agricultural ministry. Reforestation is as much about understanding the culture as it is planting.

You can't pick the fruit if you don't start with the root, a Haitian proverb says. It's time to get Haiti on its feet. If not, the new government will have no better chance of succeeding than the one it just replaced.

Kathie Klarreich, author of "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti," has covered Haiti as a journalist for more than 20 years.

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