/ 12 April 2008

Haiti ousts leader over high food prices

Haitian lawmakers voted on Saturday to dismiss Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, hoping to defuse widespread anger over rising food prices that had led to days of deadly protests and looting.

”I think that will satisfy the people,” said Senator Youri Latortue. He said Parliament ousted Alexis because he did not boost national food production and refused to set a date for the departure of United Nations peacekeepers.

President Rene Preval, who earlier in the day announced a cut of more than 15% in the price of rice, immediately said he would a name a new prime minister.

The 16-11 vote in Parliament to oust Alexis reflected frustration over soaring food prices in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day and chronic hunger had become unbearable in recent months.

The rage erupted in days violent clashes with UN peacekeepers and looting across Haiti this week that had abated by late on Thursday, but not before leaving five people dead. Protesters even stormed the presidential palace on Tuesday, charging its main gate with a rolling dumpster and yelling for Preval to step down.

Calm returning

On Saturday, UN military commander Major General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz said that calm was returning across the country, with some transportation resuming and people going back to work.

But Haiti could encounter more chaos with Alexis’s ousting, according to Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Centre at Florida International University. He said the dismissal creates a tremendous political vacuum and that senators might now go after Preval because he has not implemented many changes.

After Alexis’s dismissal was announced, about 25 people gathered outside the national palace on Saturday and chanted ”Aristide or death!”. Emmanuel Joseph (26), from the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, said residents there were still planning to protest on Monday because they were hungry.

Alexis survived a no-confidence vote over the government’s handling of the economy in February. He was nominated prime minister in May 2006, succeeding interim prime minister Gerard Latortue, who was appointed after former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004.

Lower prices

In another bid to deal with anger of food prices, Preval said on Saturday that the price of a 23kg bag of rice would drop from $51 to $43. He did not say when the price reduction would go into effect.

The Haitian president said the government would use international aid money to subsidise the price of rice and that the private sector had agreed to knock $3 off the price of each bag.

Preval also said he would ask Venezuela for help, especially about providing fertiliser for struggling farmers.

Globally, food prices have risen by 40% since mid-2007. Haiti is particularly affected because it imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80% of its rice. Much of its once-productive farmland has been abandoned as farmers struggle to grow crops in soil decimated by erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms.

On Friday, the United States State Department issued a statement banning government officials from travelling to Haiti following the violent demonstrations. It also advised American citizens to consider leaving the impoverished Caribbean country

”If you don’t need to stay, you might consider departing,” said James Ellickson-Brown, spokesperson for the US embassy in Port-au-Prince.

An estimated 19 000 US citizens live in Haiti, most dual-nationals who live in the capital. More than 140 American citizens have been kidnapped since 2005, but few were short-term visitors, the US embassy said. — Sapa-AP