After a week of disturbances in Haiti over the high cost of living, on April 11 the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that in about two weeks it would supply $1 million for the purchase of food. France offered 1 million euros (about $1.5 million). On April 10 Brazil, which leads the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) troops, announced that it would ship 14 tons of food by a Brazilian Air Force Boeing KC-137/707, in coordination with the World Food Program (WFP), to arrive on April 11. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frias made a dramatically larger commitment, announcing on April 12 that his government would send 364 tons of emergency food aid, including beef, chicken, milk, cooking oil and lentils. (AlterPresse, April 11; Brazilian government press release, April 10; Haiti Support Group, April 12 from AFP)
Uruguayan journalist Raul Zibechi described international reaction to the events in Haiti as “silence” in comparison to the conservative media’s condemnations of China for repression in Tibet and the progressive Latin American media’s condemnations of Colombia for its March 1 attack on a rebel camp in Ecuador. He suggested the left’s response was influenced by the fact that the MINUSTAH forces are largely supplied by center-left South American governments: 1,211 soldiers from Brazil, 1,147 from Uruguay, 562 from Argentina and 502 from Chile.
In the 1980s Haiti produced 95% of the rice it consumed, Zibechi said; now, after 20 years of neoliberal trade policies, Haiti imports 80% of its rice from the US. According to Didier Dominique from the Haitian labor group Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”), the destruction of the country’s agricultural sector was part of a plan to transform Haiti into a source of cheap labor for assembly plants in “free trade zones.” (Servicio Informativo “alai-amlatina,” April 11)
At the April 10 opening of the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Washington, DC, World Bank president Robert Zoellick held up a piece of bread and a sack of rice and warned that the increase in the prices of basic foods could wipe out gains in combatting world poverty over the last seven years. Zoellick, a former US trade representative, noted that food protests had broken out in countries as far apart as Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Egypt and Haiti, and attributed much of the problem to the growing use of farmlands to produce biocombustibles like ethanol instead of food crops. (La Jornada, Mexico, April 11)
Food protests spread
Protests that started in the southwestern Haitian city of Les Cayes on April 3 over the high cost of food and other staples erupted again with new force on April 7. This followed a two-day lull in the disturbances, which had spread to several other cities and resulted in four deaths.
In Les Cayes on April 7 a crowd attacked a building belonging to Senator Jean Gabriel Fortune, who had charged that drug dealers and political groups infiltrated the earlier protests. Haitian police and soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) turned back the protesters, who then looted a store belonging to Fortune’s wife. Protesters said a worker in a nearby church was killed when he was hit by a bullet during the incident; this brought the total of deaths in the protests to five. In Jeremie, west of Les Cayes on Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, police agents used nightsticks and tear gas to disperse several hundred rock-throwing protesters. Some of the demonstrators called for the removal of the MINUSTAH troops and the return of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was forced out of office in 2004. Other protesters were supporting rightwing former military officer Guy Philippe, who led the armed uprising that precipitated Aristide’s ouster.
Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince was paralyzed as students demonstrated and thousands of people hurled rocks and set up burning barricades near the National Palace and in the Martissant and Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhoods. The windshields of more than a hundred vehicles were broken. (Agence Haitienne de Presse, April 7)
On the morning of April 8 crowds in Port-au-Prince attacked the National Palace itself, forcing open the main gate. MINUSTAH troops responded with rubber bullets, wounding several people, including Jean-Jacques Augustin, a reporter and photographer for the daily Le Matin. For the rest of the day, traffic was blocked in the capital as thousands of people erected flaming barricades and trashed and looted stores, public offices, restaurants and gas stations throughout the metropolitan area. In Champ-de-Mars the Air France office was damaged, National Credit Bank vehicles were set on fire and windshields were smashed on private cars. Crowds hurled rocks at stores along the highway in Delmas, while the National Old Age Insurance office was partly burned in Petionville and the Le Matin office was attacked with rocks. Police agents largely gave up all efforts to stop the crowds, and MINUSTAH tried to take over police work in the capital. (AHP, April 8)
On April 9 President Rene Garcia Preval addressed the nation, ordering the protesters to stop and proposing longterm measures for increasing domestic production of staples like rice and other foods. “Instead of subsidizing the price of food products coming from abroad, we’d rather subsidize national production,” he said. “I propose that the price of fertilizer be subsidized by 50% and even more.” (AHP, April 8; Haiti Support Group, April 10 from Reuters) What was described as a “precarious calm” took hold in the capital after Preval’s speech, but protests against against laviche (“expensive life”) continued on April 10 in Jeremie, in the central city of Hinche, in Mirebalais in the east, in Gonaives in the northwest, in Jacmel in the southeast, and in Petit-Goave and Miragoane in the south. (AlterPresse, April 11)
Although no deaths were reported after April 7, the French group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had treated 31 injured people, including 15 with gunshot wounds, in its hospitals in Port-au-Prince from April 7 to 10. The majority of the patients were treated at Trinite hospital on April 8, the day of the most intense protests in the capital. (HSG, April 10 from MSF) As commercial activities slowly resumed on April 11, extensive damage was reported, with more than 20 gas stations vandalized in the Port-au-Prince area. (AlterPresse, April 11)
On April 12 President Preval announced emergency measures to bring down the price of food. He said a sack of rice would be reduced to $43 from the current $51, a decrease of about 15%. The government is to put up $5 of the $8 reduction, while private business are to supply the remaining $3. The reduction is for one month and affects the 30,000 tons of rice currently on the market.
Despite the new measures, a Senate no-confidence vote later in the day forced Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis from office, with 16 of the 27 senators voting against the government; one supported Alexis, and 10 were absent. Preval must now propose a replacement. Also on April 12, MINUSTAH troops reportedly fired tear gas at protesters in central Port-au-Prince, and a United Nations police agent from Nigerian who was dressed in civilian clothes was shot dead by unknown assailants near the capital’s cathedral. (HSG, April 12 from Reuters, AFP; AlterPresse, April 12)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 13