Since the start of April, Haiti has been experiencing protests over rising food prices. However, these protests became violent this past week. The protests have been triggered by rising food prices, both as a result of international factors such as oil price and grain price increases and the impact of bad weather on agriculture, creating shortages in production and consequently, an increase in agricultural and food prices. The price of rice in Haiti has doubled from US$35 to US$70 for a 120-pound pack. Gasolene has risen three times in the last two months. Countries as diverse as Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica import most of their food. Food prices have risen around the world on average by 40 per cent since mid-2007 and the price of staples has risen by 80 per cent since 2005. René Preval said that Haiti was paying the price for global price rises and the bad policies of the last 20 years.
The United Nations warns that the security implications of the growing food crisis should not be underestimated since "food riots are being reported across the globe". Thirty-three countries are particularly vulnerable and riots have taken place in 14 in the past two months. The UN has even linked the food crisis with climate change. It said the number of reported natural disasters have doubled from an average of 200 to 400 over the past 20 years. The implications for countries like Jamaica are clear. After we have exhausted our ability to subsidise, suspended the Common External Tariffs to reduce the cost of imports, and reduced taxes on foods and cut our profit margins, if these should happen, how will we protect ourselves from new rounds of price increases in the coming months and years?
The oil price crisis has an impact on the food crisis. It directly leads to increases in transportation and production costs, but as more and more grain is used as biofuels substitute a grain shortage results that forces up the price of grain based food and the price of flour and products like bread. More than 20 million acres, previously in food, have been devoted to biofuels. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation says we should not expect grain prices to go back to where they were and the UN World Food Programme said consumers should expect high food prices for at least another 10 years. It is even less able to provide emergency food for 89 million people who will be hungry this year. The oil, grain and food crises worsen the humanitarian crisis and nowhere is this more dramatic than right next door, in Haiti.
The international news has highlighted the campaign against China and the Beijing Olympics and continues to headline every misstep or poll on Obama versus Clinton. There has been precious little about the humanitarian crisis globally and the regional media have been almost blind to the crisis in our CARICOM partner, Haiti. The violent demonstrations there have caused death and injury. President Preval was trying to restore calm as protesters marched towards the presidential palace. The president was depending largely on the 10,000 United Nations peacekeeping forces to restore order. Haiti had disbanded its army and is left with an unreliable police force. Preval had ordered UN troops and Haitian police to put an end to the looting of stores as demonstrators searched desperately with clubs, sticks, rocks and guns for food.
Demonstrators numbered in the thousands and they paralysed the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Groups of youths erected barricades of burning tires in the city. What makes the situation even more unpredictable and dangerous in Haiti is that there are so many unemployed available as a reserve army of rioters. Furthermore, Haiti's recent past of gang and youth-related violence means that there is much experience in organising violence and eluding the authorities. Stores, warehouses and government offices were looted. There was gunfire in slums and upper-class neighbourhoods alike. The mob seemed more in control of the city than UN troops were.
The situation is also precarious in Haiti because of its fragile democracy. The demonstrations pose the first real test of Rene Preval's leadership among the people two years after his election, and the first real threat to democratic government since. Even members of the Haitian parliament are talking about the possibility of a coup, repeating a regular pattern over Haiti's past. One senator said that Preval had to convince people about the external origins of the food prices or face a coup.
The administration is naturally nervous. Preval has called upon the National Assembly to reduce food prices by cutting taxes on food items. There is not much more that his government can do along with communicating effectively with the people. But even he cannot be sure that the legislature will listen to him and cut taxes. His party is a minority in a legislature fractured into a number of small parties. Those parties will have to find a quick consensus on a set of policies to win back the confidence of the people. A coup against Preval will make things a lot worse for the Haitian people.
There is no real coup threat at the moment. But mobs have demanded Preval's resignation or that of the prime minister for failing to contain rising prices.
Most Haitians live below the poverty line. Haiti is dependent on rice and imports have undermined local rice cultivation. All the UN could do was promise some international relief. But that cannot go far for any length of time among Haiti's 8.5 million. Preval and international leaders plan to hold an international donors' conference on April 25 and those donors might want to signal from now what relief they will provide. But so far the donors have failed to provide the support Haiti needs.
The food demonstrations also have a political dimension. Activists from Aristide's Lavalas Family Party have added their own agenda of anger to the food riots. They complain of the 'occupation' of Haiti by UN troops; the fact that political prisoners, including Aristide supporters still languish behind bars while many of those who perpetrated his overthrow hold key government posts, including persons from donor countries like Canada; victims of the coup and of human rights abuses have received no justice or reparations; and Aristide is made to remain in exile.
Anger is also directed at the international community. Unemployment remains at 80 per cent despite the fact that recent UN and Canadian news conferences reported that the situation in Haiti was stable and improving. The average Haitian is yet to see the result of the millions of dollars provided to Haiti by the donor countries. The small wealthy elite controls food imports, while the large majority go hungry for that food. The UN spends more on security in Haiti than on food for the people showing that priorities are lopsided. Haiti's prison population has doubled since 2004. What Haiti's riots show is that there cannot be a secure democracy without food security.
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm