Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics

Published on Open Democracy, by Am’lie Gauthier, April 21, 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-Edouard 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 …

… 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)

Rene Preval 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 Desulme, “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. (full long text).

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