While the Haitian Food Riots have made brief international headlines, the mainstream media has failed to cover the real causes and effects behind the crisis.
Beginning early April, Haiti was gripped by a nationwide mobilization to protest high food prices, reaching a crescendo on Thursday the 10th, as thousands of people took to the streets. Some protestors burned tires, blocking national highways and city streets in Port-au-Prince, and a few looted local stores. Clashes with police and United Nations troops resulted in an official count of five dead. The media covered these events during the days of the crisis but offered little information to explain the protests. This superficial coverage tells an all-too-familiar story of Haiti. The media swarmed to cover the high drama of United Nations troops breaking up demonstrations with rubber bullets, and the State Department warning its citizens not to enter the country. Then, almost as quickly as it appeared on the news, Haiti disappeared, leaving the residual image of being hopeless, violent, and dangerous. As awful as the loss of life, property damage, and the resulting climate of fear are, the "rioters" in the street are only the most visible manifestation of a crisis with deep roots. Both the Haitian government and the international community played important roles in creating the current crisis. Collective coping while some individuals chose to "riot"—and even fewer looted stores—most people in Haiti's poor majority actively help one another to survive.
While the rising sale of "dirt cookies"—biscuits made of clay, salt, and oil—and the food protests and isolated cases of looting illustrate the desperation of the hungry, Haiti also has a still-extant tradition of youn ede lòt—one helping the other. Although foreigners may not see these invisible ties, even in the crowded capital city, ordinary Haitians often share what little they have with neighbors and extended kin. Several times, I have seen a neighbor, fellow church member, co-worker, friend, or cousin drop in on someone with a plate of food in hand to make sure he or she had something to eat that night. Most people I know in Haiti also, with no outside help or guidance, organize sòl—solidarity lending groups. Each pay period, a group pools together funds, with one person receiving the entire amount, usually to pay for their annual or biannual rent or to pay for their children's schooling, a quarter to a half of a minimum-wage earner's salary. People also organize in neighborhood associations, picking up trash, fixing potholes, and even opening community schools. Unnoticed by mainstream accounts, this collectivist tradition in Haiti allows people living on the margins of society (the minimum wage for those few who work in the formal sector is 70 goud, or $1.80 per day) to survive.
A Haitian proverb explains the dynamic: bourikchaje pa kanpe (the overloaded donkey can't stand still). People who are forced to deal with many problems at once can't stop, they must keep going. Why did some take to the streets now? Many people have been telling me for the past four years, including three weeks ago, that their top concern was lavi chè a— the high cost of living. Sylvie St. Fleur, a recently laid-off factory worker in her 50's, spoke for many: "The thing that destroys the country is that you can't buy anything. This high cost of living is killing us in Haiti." Sylvie argued, "If you used to buy a sack of rice for 1,000 goud, you have to buy it at 1,500 goud $37.50). Only now, a cup of sugar costs 25 goud, a cup of rice costs 18 or 19 goud, a cup of beans costs 25 goud. Even if you work for 70 goud per day (minimum wage), you buy a gallon of gas for 150 goud ($3.75) … you see? Here you can work two whole days and you can't even buy a gallon of gas."
On each visit to Haiti, I have observed new increases in food prices. Each visit also brings news of someone's death from not having access to clean water, enough food, or health care. Three weeks ago, colleagues at a grassroots women's organization mourned the loss of Imanne, a public health care worker in her mid-40's who had high blood pressure and diabetes—diseases we've been treating in the United States for generations. Imanne could have survived despite Haiti's lack of investment in health care if she had the means to afford privatized care. As a low-wage earner, she could not.
Rents in safe neighborhoods in Pòtoprens doubled in 2004 and the poor have been forced into neighborhoods like Bèlè (Bel-Air) or Sitesolèy (Cité Soleil) where clashes between armed gangs and United Nations troops are regular occurrences. Yolette Pierre explains, "In my neighborhood, in Cité Soleil, people who were able to leave, they left. People who remained, we have no choice. You sit in your house and the bullets come through the walls, inside your house."
Prices for staple goods such as rice, corn, beans, and cooking oil increased on average 30-40 percent over this one-year period. Rising gas prices explain part of these dramatic price hikes. However, according to the Nouvelliste , the cost of gas only went up 15 percent over this same period. What accounts for the rest of the increase? Sylvie St. Fleur explained, "Haiti doesn't suffer from a lack of food because there's no food, no! It is because the rich don't understand the poor." Missing from most media accounts is that while Haiti is the "poorest country in the hemisphere" by economic measures—80 percent live on less than $2 per day, and around half have an income of $1 or less—it is also the most unequal. It is second only to Namibia in income inequality, and has the most millionaires per capita in the region. Margarethe Thenusla, a 34-year-old factory worker and mother of two said, "When they ask for aid for the needy, you hear that they release thousands of dollars for aid in Haiti. But when it comes you can't see anything that they did with the food aid. You see it in the market; they're selling it. Us poor people don't see it."
Mark Schuller is a journalist for The Americas Program, Center for International Policy. This article was originally published as an Americas Program Special Report on 28 April, 2008.
1st May 2008