Haitians Say Their Hunger is Real
JIM LONEY / Reuters 10apr2008
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Elta Petithomme has been scouring the Haitian capital's garbage-strewn main market street for hours, searching for something to feed her four young children. Today, pickings are slim.
U.N. peacekeepers stand guard while residents protest food prices on the streets in Port-au-Prince April 8, 2008.
Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Yesterday she sold a cellphone for 50 gourdes, the equivalent of about $1.30, enough to buy some bread, sugar and fried plantains. That's all the children, all under the age of 6, had to eat for the day.
"Some days neighbors will cook and give us some food, as little as it is. Every day is like this," said Petithomme, neatly dressed in a white T-shirt and denim skirt. "I'm not working. I am hungry. But today, I haven't found anything for us to eat."
Petithomme and hundreds of other Haitians flooded the streets of the capital on Thursday after two days of sometimes violent protests against skyrocketing food prices that have Haitians complaining of rising hunger and talking about death by starvation.
"In the last two months, all the prices have doubled or tripled," Oxfam official Yolette Etienne said.
High fuel prices, which have made transportation more expensive, rising demand in Asia, the use of farmland and crops for biofuels, a long drought in Australia and speculation on futures markets have combined to push up food prices worldwide.
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is one of three countries in the world that share the largest daily caloric deficit -- 460 calories per day below the daily requirement of 2,100 calories per day, according to the World Food Program.
RICE AND SUGAR RISING
At the Canape Vert Market, where oranges, onions, peppers and rolls of toilet paper are neatly stacked, clouds of flies infest piles of pork and sausages, and stray dogs work furiously against their fleas, vendors seemed to have plenty of supplies, but there were few buyers.
Marie France Presky has been selling staples for 10 years. Her cost for a 55-pound (25-kg) bag of rice has climbed from 530 gourdes ($13.90) to 1,075 gourdes ($28.20) since January.
The same is true for her other necessities: sugar jumped from 1,200 gourdes ($31.50) to 1,700 gourdes ($44.70) for a 110-pound (50 kg) bag; flour from about 1,200 ($31.50) to about 2,000 gourdes ($53.00) for a similar amount.
"The people, they buy tiny amounts now. I am hardly making any profit at all," she said, adding with a broad smile: "I haven't eaten today and you are making me talk too much. I don't have the energy."
Most gas stations were closed on Thursday and some were boarded up against vandals and looters. A worker at one service station said the price of diesel had risen from 134 gourdes ($3.50) to 152 gourdes ($4.00) per gallon (3.8 liters) in 15 days.
It is common for Haitians to scrape by with money from relatives abroad. Remittances are nearly one-quarter of Haiti's GDP and more than double the total of exports, according to World Bank figures.
Often, family and friends in the Caribbean nation help each other out.
"My parents in the provinces sometimes send us some food," said Pierre Rolin, a 35-year-old who lives with his three younger brothers in Port-au-Prince. He was scouting job opportunities Thursday on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the downtown market street.
"I am not working. I am going around trying to find what I can to survive. Even if I fix something for someone, usually they can't pay, so there is no way to feed my family," he said.
On Wednesday, he said, he managed to buy a bag with four pieces of bread for 30 gourdes ($0.80). "The price has not gone up, but the bread is not even half the size it was before."
International agencies say most Haitians live on less than $2 per day.
"This is a situation of complete desperation," Oxfam's Etienne said. "At this stage, they are hungry. But without strong action, this could become starvation."
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Tom Brown.
Protesters Retreat in Haiti But Warn
Government Needs to Reduce Prices or Face More Chaos
AP / International Herald Tribune 10apr2008
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Peacekeepers cleared roadblocks and businesses reopened in Haiti's debris-littered capital Thursday, but protesters warned that chaos will return quickly if the government fails to rein in soaring food prices.
Three days of protests and looting in the capital brought a swift political response, with most of Haiti's 27 senators calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis. Protesters said President Rene Preval should be replaced as well if he doesn't find a solution.
"If you can't take care of the country, you are like a leaf and you should fall," said Fortune Metilien, a 42-year-old garbage collector.
Metilien and many of the other protesters carried tree branches to symbolize their support for former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has vowed to return since a 2004 revolt sent him into exile in South Africa. Many demonstrators sang a popular song that includes the refrain: "If Aristide were here, it wouldn't be like this."
And some people in the Cite Soleil slum, a bastion of Aristide support, said envoys of the Aristide-aligned Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste visited Monday and told them to protest peacefully.
But while some blamed Aristide supporters, others attributed the protests to drug smugglers bent on creating chaos. The unrest began last week in Les Cayes, the base of fugitive rebel leader Guy Philippe who is wanted in the U.S. on drug-smuggling charges. Five people died there.
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, doubts there is any political motive to the protests at all, describing them as a spontaneous reaction to food prices, which have risen 40 percent globally since mid-2007.
"The protests themselves are very logical given what's happening to the cost of living," he said.
Haiti is particularly affected by the rising prices because people are so poor, and almost all their money goes into buying food.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this week for emergency aid, and France said Thursday it will send US$1.6 million (?1 million), including US$1.2 million (?800,000) worth of food.
Preval, in his first public comments since the unrest began, pledged Wednesday to help farmers and appealed for a halt to the violence ? an appeal that seemed to be working.
On Thursday, some protesters threw rocks at a U.N. building in the Martissant slum, and tires burned elsewhere the city. But routine business resumed across most of Port-au-Prince, the capital of 2 million people, as cars and motorcycles formed long lines at gas stations that had been closed for days.
Even so, it was clear people expected Preval to act fast. Young men in Martissant shouted that the protests will resume quickly if Preval does not bring down the price of rice.
"We heard the speech, but the speech is empty," said student protest organizer Herve Saintiles, 37. "We are going to hold the president responsible for all these problems."
Alexis, Preval's second-in-command, was in a precarious position. He survived a confidence vote over the government's handling of the economy in February, but the senators said they would call another censure vote on Saturday.
Preval was once a protege of Aristide, a popular priest driven from office amid accusations of corruption and that he supported brutal gangs. But Aristide supporters who backed Preval are now turning away from him.
Marie Carmel Jean-Baptiste, a 35-year-old resident of Cite Soleil, said she voted for Preval ? but not because she thinks he's a good president.
"I voted Preval to hold on until Aristide comes back," she said.