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.
Admittedly, Préval has faced a difficult balancing act, wedged between the money and coercion of traditional foreign powers (the United States, Canada and France, and the attendant peacekeeping mission and financial institutions) and ramped-up aid programs from Cuba and Venezuela, between a tiny elite that controls the economy and the vast majority of Haitians who live in poverty, and between a bevy of predatory parties that control Parliament and Aristide, who continues to loom large even in exile in South Africa.
Préval has played the conciliator, mollifying opponents and Aristide supporters by giving them posts in his government, accepting sizable aid packages from Bush and Chávez, and allowing peacekeepers to root out armed gangs from the slums despite what UN officials have called “collateral damage.” Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has commended the government for its fiscal policy, praising its “extraordinary commitment to their program of reform” and “track record for implementing difficult policies.” But things have not improved for Haiti’s poor. In fact, they have worsened exponentially.
Food prices have soared in the past year, with imported rice, Haiti’s main staple, nearly doubling since last fall. For the 4.5 million Haitians who scrape by on less than a dollar a day and spend more than half of their meager income on food, the impact has been devastating.
“Everything has changed,” said 30-year-old Hernite Joseph, who sells imported chicken parts at Port-au-Prince’s La Saline market. “My kids are like toothpicks. Before, if you had $1.25, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it’s not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With $1.25, you can’t even make a plate of rice for one child.”
In March, Haitians began talking of a “Clorox” hunger so painful that it feels as if they had swallowed bleach or battery acid. The powder keg exploded in Les Cayes in early April, when thousands of protesters demanding lower food prices clashed with peacekeepers and knocked down the walls of a UN military base. Resentment against the UN mission runs high among the poor, who argue that its $500 million annual budget would be better spent on development than on troops and tanks. Préval, who does not have a spokesperson and who rarely addresses the nation (unlike Aristide, who did so frequently during his presidency), took a week to respond to the protests.
“The electorate feels ignored and neglected,” said Patrick Elie, a longtime activist whom Préval named to head a commission to study the possible creation of a new security force. “The population is frustrated not only by the reality of rising food prices but by the policy of this government, which has found it more appropriate to woo its political adversaries and the international community rather than cultivate the very electorate that put it in power, an electorate that is mostly made of poor people.”
Still, Elie insists the protests were ignited by opponents and drug traffickers seeking to destabilize the government.
“The signs are clear,” he said. “What you saw were political operators, commandos, out to wreak havoc, to provoke a situation of instability so that some people might profit from it…. You don’t go to the palace looking for rice. You go to the palace because you want to create a political situation.”
A week before the Les Cayes protests, Guy Philippe, the former rebel leader who helped topple Aristide and then received less than 2 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate against Préval, evaded a raid by DEA agents allegedly looking to arrest him on drug-trafficking charges. Philippe had dodged a similar foray last July in Les Cayes, where he was living.
Another prime suspect named by some observers is Youri Latortue, the shadowy security chief for his uncle, former de facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue. In the wake of the protests, Latortue led opposition senators in the no-confidence vote that ousted Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis. The theory goes that the protests were sparked to undermine the government’s fight against the drug trade and corruption–Préval has allowed prominent members of the elite to be jailed for fraud, and he has condemned cocaine trafficking as a threat to the country’s security and stability–and to politically eliminate Alexis, who was close to Préval and a leading prospect to succeed him as president.
Hooked on Rice
If the machinations behind the protests are open to speculation, the roots of the economic crisis that drove most people to take to the streets are well documented.
In the past twenty years, Haiti has gone from being a country that could nearly feed itself to one that is treacherously dependent on the United States and, as recent months have proved, vulnerable to the vagaries of world commodities prices, especially that of rice.
For centuries, rice was grown in the rain-soaked Artibonite Valley and until recently eaten only on Sundays and special occasions. Haitians lived mostly off a wide array of grains and starchy tubers, including corn, millet, manioc, breadfruit, yams, sweet potatoes and plantains.
In 1987 cheap imports began flooding Haiti under the US-backed military regime that replaced dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Officially, rice imports were banned, but under the charge of “Chicago Boy” economist Leslie Delatour, the government turned a blind eye to the contraband. The government even sent soldiers to the Artibonite to protect the black-market imports, which had drawn attacks from angry peasants.
At the time, Delatour told the New York Times, “This country’s going to be dependent regardless of who’s in power; the only thing that is in question is whether it will be dependent on the Americans or someone else.”
To whom Haiti would become dependent is no longer in question.
Imports from the United States flooded the country after Aristide returned from exile in 1994 with an IMF structural-adjustment program that would slash tariffs to as low as 3 percent. Since then rice imports from the United States have more than doubled, and they continue to rise.
Haiti is now the third-largest importer of US-produced rice, behind only Mexico and Japan, and less than 30 percent of the rice consumed in the country is homegrown.
“There’s been a decision to destroy the local peasant economy, and we’re paying for it dearly now,” said Camille Chalmers, an economist with the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development. “Since the 1980s, the IMF and World Bank have decreed that we apply structural-adjustment programs to liberalize our finances and foreign commerce, privatize our public enterprises and deregulate foreign investment. They told us that we’re right next to the biggest agricultural producer in the world, so there’s no reason to produce our own food because we can buy it at a cheap price, and that the peasants should go to the city to sell their labor to American assembly plants to make textiles and electronics for export. Since then, we’ve gotten poorer, more dependent and more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the international market.”
Préval, an agronomist who has lived and worked with peasants in the mountains above the Artibonite, is keenly aware of the destructive impact of economic liberalization. (So must be one of his palace advisers, Elisabeth Delatour, the widow of the liberalizing economist, and the woman with whom Préval is said to be romantically involved.)
“In 1987, when rice began being imported at a cheap price, many people applauded,” Préval said in a televised address on April 9 that sought to placate the protesters. “But cheap imported rice destroyed Artibonite rice. Today, imported rice has become expensive, and our national production is in ruins. That’s why subsidizing imported food is not the answer.”
Three days later, Préval did just that. With rumors buzzing of renewed protests, he announced he had struck a deal with the three major importers to cut the price of rice from $51 to $43 for a 110-pound sack. Since then, a coffee can of rice in the street markets has dropped in price by 80 cents to just over $3, but it is not enough to appease the poor.
“It still takes me two or three days to sell a sack,” said Marie-Michel Jean, a rice vendor in the muddy Croix-des-Bossales marketplace in downtown Port-au-Prince. “And it’s only rice that’s gone down, nothing else.”
Préval insists that the subsidy is a temporary measure until his government can relaunch national production. He has promised to cut the price of fertilizer in half, thanks in part to a promised donation of 15,000 tons of urea from the Venezuelan government, which also plans to send tractors and agronomists. Meanwhile, other donors that had previously paid little attention to the nation’s peasants have declared that they will start investing in agriculture.
But Préval has not indicated he will roll back the free-market policies that have made Haiti’s economy one of the most liberalized in Latin America. Préval’s economic program, backed by the IMF and World Bank, remains firmly in place. There is little in Haiti left to liberalize, but Préval has marched forward with the privatization of the state-owned telephone company, Teleco, and the electric company and ports are rumored to be awaiting the same fate. Meanwhile, at least until 2010, the government’s economic plan stresses “prudent fiscal and monetary policies” to keep inflation in check, at the expense of growth and job creation. The IMF-approved plan touts agriculture as a “pillar of growth,” but in practice, investment in agriculture has been minimal. The government will spend 3.5 percent of its $2 billion budget on agriculture this year, barely more than the $50 million in debt payments it will make to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The US Treasury Department politely spurned a letter written by fifty-four US Representatives calling on it to push for immediate debt relief.
On April 27, for the second time in eleven years, Préval nominated Ericq Pierre, a senior official with the Inter-American Development Bank, to become his new prime minister. But Pierre’s nomination was rejected by Parliament on May 12. During his first presidency, Préval chose Pierre, but the lower chamber of deputies rejected the economist by a vote of forty-three to nine, with some legislators attacking him for advocating the privatization of state-owned enterprises. The Parliament went on to reject Préval’s next two choices, creating a deadlock that, along with contested elections, froze aid and immobilized the government for nearly two years.
As the political intrigue thickens, the poor are waiting, with increasing impatience, for change.
“Demonstrations like this don’t happen without a reason,” said Walner Bien-Aimé, a peasant from northwestern Haiti. “There is always a cause. And as long as this problem of hunger is not resolved, there will be more.”