Haiti: protesters demand food

Some 5,000 protesters shut down the southern Haitian city of Les Cayes on April 3 in a dramatic demonstration against President Rene Preval’s government for failing to slow the rising cost of food and other staple products; they also protested the local administration’s failure to maintain roads. From early in the morning people barricaded streets with burning tires, forcing stores, banks and schools to close down in the city, the country’s third largest. While many people demonstrated peacefully, others looted food and containers of cement from trucks and warehouses. Some protesters raided the offices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in the Breset neighborhood, carrying away computers and other office equipment. Two MINUSTAH vehicles were set on fire.

Official sources said on April 3 that there were no major injuries in the Les Cayes protests, and MINUSTAH spokesperson Fred Blaise claimed that crowds were under control by the end of the day. Sources in Les Cayes gave a different story, reporting that the disturbances continued into April 4 and that two people were shot dead and 18 were injured, 12 of them by bullets, during the 48 hours of demonstrations. Some people put the number of the dead at four; one of those killed was said to be named Jean Baptiste Zary. There were conflicting reports on who was responsible for the shooting, although some people in Les Cayes blamed soldiers trying to drive back the demonstrators. On April 4 Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis confirmed one death.

Demonstrations against the high cost of living—laviche (“expensive life”) in Creole—broke out in other areas. Hundreds protested on April 3 in Gonaives on the northwest coast. The protests there were largely peaceful, but United Nations workers were evacuated to a police base, and five people were injured with rocks as protesters tired to force the Frabre Geffrard high school’s administration to let the students join the demonstrations. Gonaives is Haiti’s fourth largest city. Protests started in the southern city of Petit-Goave on April 4 as demonstrators tried to close schools and bring out students. Students marched in downtown Port-au-Prince the same day to protest the cost of living.

As in other parts of the world, food prices have been rising sharply in Haiti, where 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. In Port-au-Prince the cost of rice, beans, condensed milk and fruit has gone up some 50% from a year ago, while the cost of spaghetti has doubled.

After initially blaming the protests in Les Cayes on drug dealers and smugglers, on April 4 Prime Minister Alexis announced that “the government is in solidarity with the population, which is proving to be worried about the high cost of living.” He said the government would immediately disburse 400 million gourdes (about $10.43 million) for soup kitchens and a program providing jobs in maintaining the sanitation system. For the longer term he promised a package of programs to reduce the cost of living, including 65 million gourdes ($1.51 million) for sanitation, 400 million gourdes ($10.43 million) for micro-credit through the National Bank and local lenders, 90 million gourdes ($2.34 million) in agricultural production, and 44 million gourdes ($1.14 million) for food programs in schools and universities. (Globe and Mail, Toronto. April 4 from AP; Haiti Support Network News Briefs. April 4 from AP; AlterPresse, April 3, 4, 5; Agence Haitienne de Presse (AHP), April 4)

In March unnamed sources reported that the government was planning to ask Parliament to raise the minimum wage to 150 gourdes ($3.90) a day, about double the current level. The leftist labor movement Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”) charges that the plan shows the “antipopular and corrupt character of the current government.” The group had called for a minimum wage of 350-450 gourdes in 2003, during the government of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide. According to the Haitian internet news service AlterPresse, unnamed “other labor organizations” support the government’s plan for 150 gourdes. (AlterPresse, March 25) [The minimum wage only directly impacts the relatively small number of Haitians employed in the formal sector.]

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 6

See our last posts on Haiti and the peak food crisis.

  1. Haiti: protests spread to capital
    From Reuters, April 8:

    Haitians erected flaming barricades and tried to storm the National Palace on Tuesday as protests against rising food prices, which have killed five people, paralyzed the impoverished nation’s capital.

    Some demonstrators in the city carried empty plates to show the government they had nothing to eat.

    U.N. peacekeepers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to control the angry mob after the protesters used large steel garbage containers as battering rams to try to smash the gates of the whitewashed palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, witnesses said.

    Several people were injured by rubber bullets, including two local journalists, witnesses said.

    Troops swarmed the area in armored personnel carriers and trucks, clearing out the demonstrators and taking up patrols in front of the palace.

    “If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave. That’s our decision,” said protester Renand Alexandre. “If the police and U.N. troops want to shoot at us, that’s OK, because in the end if we are not killed by bullets we’ll die of hunger.”

  2. Haitian prime minister urged to resign
    From AFP, April 10:

    A group of Haitian lawmakers called on Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis late Wednesday to resign to make way for a new government as ongoing food protests rock the island, one of them said.

    “We have written to Mr Alexis and we have advised him to resign in the next 48 hours,” senior senator Andris Riche told AFP.

    “It is not an ultimatum, its advice,” he added, although another senator who signed the letter, Hyppolite Melius, said Alexis could be forced out.

    Riche said a majority of Haiti’s senators supported the letter, which was signed after a meeting at a “secret location” in the capital Port-au-Prince.

    Their call comes after fresh violence broke out during demonstrations over high food prices.

    UN peacekeepers were forced to intervene for the second day in a row, pushing back protesters trying to reach the presidential palace using tear gas and firing in the air, radio reporters said.

    President René Préval in a televised address promised certain relief measures, such as farm subsidies, calming the protests for now. Miami Herald, April 9:

    But the president has shown an aversion to pressure. Even after Parliament called his prime minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, for a vote of confidence in February, and after warnings, Préval did not speak to the nation about the challenges his government was facing.

    When he did address the rising cost of food, he offered tongue-and-cheek responses such as a now-famous admonition to Haitians: “If there is a protest against the rising prices, come to get me at the palace and I will come demonstrate with you.”