Wednesday, April 09, 2008

food riots escalate in Haiti

Rioters in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince attempted to storm the presidential palace yesterday demanding the resignation of President Rene Preval. UN peacekeepers drove them off the palace grounds using rubber bullets and tear gas. The palace attack was the latest escalation in violence that has been growing across Haiti for over a week with rioters are angry over rising food prices. In Port-au-Prince, they left a trail of destruction across the city smashing windows, setting fire to buildings and blocking streets with concrete barricades and burnt out cars.

The protesters tried to break into the presidential palace by charging its chain gates with a rolling dumpster truck. They were foiled by Brazilian UN troops arriving in jeeps and assault vehicles. Preval was in the palace at the time of the attack but has made no public statement as yet. Preval is a former ally of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and took over from him as president in 1994. He was replaced by Aristide again in 2001 until the 2004 coup that brought an end to that regime. Preval was elected leader again in 20006 but has been helpless to end Haiti’s unending crisis.

As well as the removal of the Washington-backed Preval, the protesters also want to the end the 9,000 strong UN mission MINUSTAH (UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti). The force has been in place since the 2004 rebellion that led to the downfall of Aristide. It has a mandate not only to stabilise the environment but also to assist with instituting a political process and promote human rights. The force was initially popular as it aimed to curb the power of Haiti’s armed gangs. However many Haitians want the force removed after incidents where children were caught in the crossfire.

The current series of riots started in the southern port city of Les Cayes last week where 5,000 protesters shut down the city and tried to burn down a UN compound. Five people died in the violence there. Demonstrations against the high cost of living quickly spread to other cities. Hundreds protested on 3 April in Haiti’s fourth largest city Gonaives on the northwest coast. Protests there were largely peaceful, but UN workers were evacuated to a police base, and five people were injured with rocks as protesters tired to force a school's administration to let the students join the demonstrations.

The violence finally reached the capital on Monday. UN envoy to Haiti, Hedi Annabi, said international efforts to stabilise Haiti was becoming “extremely fragile” due to the country’s soaring food prices and declining living standards. He called for urgent food aid, and said 80 percent of Haiti's 8.5 million people live on less than $2 a day. These people, he said, were seriously affected by the global increase in prices for basic food items. "I think there is a need for urgent assistance to alleviate the suffering of the population," he added. "At the same time, we need to remain vigilant and respond robustly so that we do not allow these demonstrations to be exploited by people with political motivations.”

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. 80 per cent of the country’s adults are unemployed. Barely one in five Haitians over 15 can read and write. There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of drinkable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests. Almost all its food is imported and the price of beans, fruit, rice, and condensed milk has gone up 50 percent in the past year, while the price of pasta has doubled. Many Haitians have taken to eating cookies made of dirt, vegetable oil and salt.

In stark contrast to the country’s widespread abject poverty is Haiti’s small elite. This consists of no more than several thousand families who are extremely wealthy, including many millionaires among their number. The country's wealthy are clustered around the cooler mountainside suburb of PĂ©tionville, where French restaurants and luxury car concessions cater to expensive tastes. Education and medical services are entirely private, and the children of the elite tend to be educated abroad, either in Paris or the US.

This is very conspicuous consumption in one of the three countries of the world with the highest daily caloric deficit per person (460 kcal/day below the daily requirement of 2100 kcal/day). To address this deficiency the World Food Programme (WFP) are appealing to the international community for urgent funds to support its operations in Haiti. Last month, WFP appealed to donors for an additional US$500 million to respond to dramatic increases in global food and fuel prices. WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said what is happening in Haiti is repeated across the world “Rising prices that mean less food for the hungry,” she said. “A new face of hunger is emerging: even where food is available on the shelves, there are now more and more people who simply cannot afford it.”

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