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Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics

Amélie Gauthier
21 April 2008

Haiti has been hard hit by the global food crisis. The turbulent events provoked by the sharp rise in prices of basic commodities have included riots across the country, in which five people were shot dead on 7 April 2008 and many others wounded by gunfire; an attempt to invade the national palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince, on 8 April; and repeated protests against United Nations peacekeepers, with three Sri Lankan soldiers shot and one Nigerian police-officer killed on 12 April. This accumulating series of events led to the removal from office of the prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, also on 12 April. The entire cycle of instability has caused immense disruption and suffering, and led the major international donors' conference scheduled for 24-25 April - designed to help facilitate stability and progress in Haiti - to be postponed.

Amélie Gauthier is a researcher at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid

What makes Haiti's current predicament even more devastating is that the country had made major progress during the last year, in that violence had diminished and the United Nations peacekeeping operation (officially the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti / Minustah) had reoriented its efforts to focus on state-building. It may still be too early to evaluate the full impact of the turmoil, yet they are likely to be catastrophic: the effects of a global food shortage in a country already suffering from a profound structural crisis could seriously undermine all the achievements made to date by Minustah and the international community.

The dramatic increase in the prices of staple foods has been fuelling tensions for several months. By February 2008, the people were appealing to the government for subsidies and assistance to compensate for the price increases. The government initially declared that it would not undertake any measures to help the population. This unsympathetic answer provoked days of demonstrations in front of the national palace, and eventually a no-confidence vote from parliament on 28 February.

At the time, the question was whether the test was of prime minister Alexis's leadership or merely his capacity to call on the ex-chimères ("hotheads", or members of violent gangs) in a show of strength in front of the palace. The situation was already fragile; government weakness, ongoing ties between government and chimères, and an angry and hungry population all contributing to the tensions. But in retrospect, the events of late February were the harbinger of the far more serious events of April.

Food demos, gang riots

At the time of writing, major cities in Haiti have been completely paralysed for days. The country is another victim of a worldwide food crisis that has many regional and national components (see Heidi Fritschel, "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis" [9 April 2008]). A combination of factors is responsible: agriculture being replaced by agrofuels, increasing demand by emerging markets, and reductions in rice exports. Haiti is affected mostly by the price rises in food imports; 25%-30% of the national budget is spent on imported goods, and $270 million on rice.

The estimated 40% increase in prices in 2007 has made life even more difficult for the 56% of Haitians who are extremely poor, and the 76% living on less than $2 a day. The price of transport has increased by 50% in a matter of days; twenty-two petrol stations have been vandalised, the traditional "tap-taps" are not running. Haiti is suffering from the same broad conditions that have hit Egypt, the Philippines, Cameroon, Senegal and Palestine and many other countries around the world - though the incidence of death and violence there make it exceptional.

Indeed, it is valid to ask whether the demonstrations all over Haiti are related only to a rise in the cost of living and specifically staple foods. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets voicing demand to the government that go far beyond the food-price issue. The gatherings included acts of vandalism and looting against the private sector, use of violence, and aggression towards journalists. All of these are a sombre reminder of the days before ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was exiled in 2004.

Indeed, some observers claim that clandestine meetings of the (pro-Aristide) Lavalas movement have been taking place in the last few months, creating cells and preparing for the 2011 elections. The food-price demonstrations and the chaotic surrounding events may have worked in their favour.

President René Préval waited days to address the nation, before saying that violence would only make matters worse yet offering no answers. Both people and parliament were clearly dissatisfied with the government's handling of the situation; sixteen of the twenty-seven members of the senate, parliament's upper house, called for the prime-minister's resignation. On 12 April, Jacques-Édouard Alexis's second chance came to an end, and he was removed from office via a no-confidence vote. Préval's response to this outcome was again vague, fuelling further uncertainty about Haiti's political direction.

One step forward, two back

René Préval has enjoyed strong support from the international community since his election in 2006. The government benefited from moderate economic growth: GDP has been rising and inflation contained. The satisfactory overall macroeconomic results have earned Préval support from international financial institutions and bilateral donors. Until the recent events, there was even some cautious optimism about Haiti's potential.

However, the president's reticence during the worst moments of the riots has raised questions about his commitment to the country's recovery. His initial speech - which spoke only of long-term solutions, and asked civil servants (who had in 2008 been given a 35% salary increase) to share with their "brothers and sisters" - offered little to a hungry and angry population. He also blamed the situation on bad economic management over the last twenty years (for seventeen of which Haiti has been governed by Lavalas). The president avoided talking about riot damage and compensation to the private sector. It was only days later, amid renewed upheaval, that the president finally announced that the government, together with rice importers, would provide a 15% subsidy for rice bags. In short, René Préval's words and actions lack conviction, and raise questions over both his political judgment and competence.

Also in openDemocracy on the global food crisis of 2007-08:

Heidi Fritschel, "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis" (9 April 2008)

Also on Haiti in openDemocracy:

Nick Caistor, "What election hopes for Haiti?" (3 February 2006)

Mariano Aguirre, "Haiti: living on the edge" (24 February 2006)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide" (11 March 2004)

The government has not focused on job creation, one of the issues that has been absent from the discourse of the national authorities in the last two years (despite the fact that the unemployment rate among 15 to 19-year-olds stands at 62%). It was only in February 2008, when Jacques-Édouard Alexis was facing his first motion of no-confidence, that he proposed a 400-million gourde package to provide labour-intensive projects. He was very unclear on how he planned to implement these projects, and was criticised for offering too little.

The current special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG), Hédi Annabi, became head of Minustah only in September 2007, and was in New York while the crisis was developing in Haiti. The SRSG has great responsibility in peacekeeping and peace-building processes, and depends on the full support of the international community. In addition to strategic planning and coordinating, the SRSG is called upon for leadership, mediation and negotiation, playing a key role in political processes (an area where the UN is weak and overstretched).

During 2007, the security situation in Haiti improved visibly, with increases in the number of police-officers and the detention of over 750 armed-gang members. Shantytowns such as Cite Soleil and Martissant were liberated from the stranglehold of the gangs. The number of kidnappings diminished substantially and a general sense of security returned. However, new waves of kidnapping hit the capital in January-March 2008. The SRSG argues that more emphasis should be put on the security-development nexus. Haitians are far from receiving the full dividends of stability.

Both the president and the SRSG's leadership have remained unchallenged during this last violent episode; yet both have considerable influence in determining whether the process in Haiti succeeds or fails, and share responsibility for including both Haiti's people and the international community in the country's future.

The political impact

The food crisis is a major setback in the stabilisation process in terms of security, socio-economic recovery and the political process. Beyond the food-price issue, the legitimacy of both the government and the international community has been impaired. In his most recent report to the Security Council, Hédi Annabi emphasises the tensions between the government and parliament, highlights the erosion of public opinion, and reminds the Security Council that political progress is ultimately the responsibility of Haitians themselves.

The material damage caused by the riots will have severe long-term economic consequences. At the height of the crisis it was estimated that the cost of the mobs' destruction was as much as $10 million in a single day, and that the country's week-long paralysis represents an approximate loss of $100 million to Haiti's already depressed economy. The government is unable to protect private-sector assets and investment, and is unwilling to take responsibility. The economic situation has been greatly affected by the turmoil and will probably deter investors for some time.

In terms of security, the capacity of the state to deal with furious mobs and rioting is similar to that of 2004: basically nil. The high level of weapon ownership in the country remains a threat to the population. The Haitian national police (PNH) has improved thanks both to an increased number of officers and more vetting for corruption, but it still needs to be backed up by an international force. The PNH has also been criticised for a lack of professionalism in protecting the rights and welfare of the population and its overall handling of the crisis.

A critical situation

The high-level meeting convening multilateral and bilateral donors with the government of Haiti planned for 24-25 April has now been postponed. It was to have discussed a national strategic document for growth and poverty-reduction (2007-10), which estimates that implementation will cost an astonishing $3.9 billion. Since none of the funds pledged has so far been disbursed, stronger emphasis needs to be put on coordination mechanisms between donors (see "The UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti: analysis and recommendations for future mandates of the Mission", Fride, 16 April 2008).

Several countries and agencies have already reacted to the emergency - by directly pledging funds (France has promised 800,000 euros), contributing to multilateral organisations (Canada, through the WFO), supplying emergency aid (Brazil has delivered an initial fourteen tons of food and other supplies), granting funds to Haiti's government (the World Bank has given $10 million), the promise of major supplies of food (Venezuela), or the release of emergency aid (the United States). It is uncertain who will benefit from these large disbursements of funds; the government, the peace spoilers, or the real victims of the price rises, Haiti's people.

The national strategy document on growth and poverty-reduction plans to boost the agriculture sector by allocating 10% of the total funds and 24% of the growth vectors. The Haitian government has always sought more agricultural investment, due to the dependence of a large part of the rural population on this sector. The international community has never given great importance to enhancing agricultural productivity and making it the centre of Haiti's economic recovery. The most probable reason is that the United States currently exports 200,000 tons of rice to Haiti; these have already undermined local production capacity to the point where Haiti is unable to achieve self-sufficiency in rice cultivation. Haiti is the fourth largest recipient of US rice exports, after Japan, Mexico and Canada. In this sense, Haiti's food crisis is structural and longer-term; there have been many prior warnings (see, for example, "Food crisis worsening in Haiti - more than 3.8 million hungry people", Food & Agricultural Organisation, July 2003)

René Préval still has to propose a new prime minister, elections of one-third of the senate may be held on 18 May 2008. The finance minister claims the food crisis will not affect Haiti's stability, stating that "programmes are in place to boost agriculture and create jobs that would generate income and help its people cope with the cost of living". Many Haitians are demanding radical changes both to the country's neo-liberal economic policies and its political course (see Myrtha Désulmé, "Root causes of the Haitian hunger riots", 20 April 2008).

This violent and costly episode in what should be a period of stabilisation in Haiti reveals in raw fashion the key problems facing the country. The combination of a high number of weapons, continuing political instability, and weak leadership could - along with the hunger in Haitians' stomachs - spark further deadly revolt.

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