We hit the first barricade just a few miles north of Les Cayes, one of the largest cities in Haiti. A dozen machete-wielding peasants stood defiantly in front of a tangle of rocks, tree branches and enormous concrete pipes. Incensed at the sight of cameras and suspicious of the blan (foreigners), they refused to let us pass and threatened to seize our vehicle. After a half-hour of our arguing and pleading, the blockade’s dreadlocked leader let us bypass the barricade on a dirt road that cut through banana fields and thatched huts. The next barricade was only a few minutes away, an immovable tree trunk adorned with an enormous fading Coca-Cola sign. A bare-chested peasant armed with an ax was finally persuaded to hack off a car’s width passage of timber. Further ahead, the barricading protesters only increased in their proximity to one another, their aversion to transit and their creative use of materials–boulders, nail-embedded two-by-fours, the rusted chassis of an abandoned semi-truck, an overturned boat. Eight hours and some twenty blockades later, with the flaming barricades of the city of Aquin looming ahead, we cut our losses and repeated the same journey in reverse.
Thousands of protesters had paralyzed Les Cayes for nearly a week, beginning April 3, covering streets in rocks, broken-down cars and burning tires. Community leaders demanded the government lower food prices, set a date for the departure of UN peacekeepers and end the “death plan,” a reference to the neoliberal economic policies that have prevailed in Haiti for more than two decades. Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince was overrun by bands of rock-throwing protesters, who set fire to gas stations, looted businesses and assailed the presidential palace. Similar demonstrations exploded in the cities of Petit Goâve, Léogâne and Gonaïves. The barricades were finally lifted when President René Préval promised to subsidize the price of imported rice by 15 percent and the Parliament sacked the prime minister.
The last time the country mobilized so massively and with such ferocity was February 13, 2006, one week after the presidential election. Haiti’s electoral council had just announced that Préval’s ballot count had slipped below the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff against his nearest competitor, who had less than a quarter as many votes. Hundreds of barricades went up spontaneously across the country, and a throng of protesters from the slums stormed the posh Hotel Montana, headquarters of the electoral council, where top diplomats huddled. Haiti’s international patrons panicked, and they quickly prevailed upon the electoral council to declare Préval the victor.
Préval made no campaign promises. Like his onetime ally Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his popularity is rooted in the belief of the Haitian masses that he is on their side. But two years into his term, many people have grown impatient waiting for a change that has not come.