- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In slums and villages across this country, the poor speak of “Clorox hunger” — a hunger so painful it feels like your stomach is being eaten by bleach or battery acid.

Nowhere in the world have rising food prices — which have sparked protests and riots in several countries — had such a devastating impact as in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, where about 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

“Everything has changed” as rice prices nearly doubled over the past five months, said 30-year-old street vendor Hernite Joseph.

“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.”

Rising food prices ignited massive demonstrations and road blockades across Haiti earlier this month.

On April 12, President Rene Preval responded, promising to reduce the price of rice by nearly 16 percent, while the Senate voted to remove Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis from office over his handling of a week of food riots.

The moves seem to have mollified the Haitian masses — for now.

Many of those who participated in the protests are vowing to take to the streets again if food prices do not go down rapidly.

“The president needs to hurry,” said Jean Francois Bernard, a student who participated in the protests.

“The mobilizations will continue until we see results. Until now, we haven’t seen anything,” he said.

Mr. Preval said the price of a 110-pound bag of rice would drop from $51 to $43. He convinced importers to take a $3 cut in their profits, and secured enough international aid to cover the remaining $5 per bag.

“We could see the crisis coming, because we had made an appeal two months ago and also a week before the incidents began,” said Mamadou Mbaye, who heads the U.N. World Food Program’s office in Haiti. “What we didn’t foresee was the dimension of the protests.”

The WFP feeds 1.7 million people in Haiti and 300,000 children daily, Mr. Mbaye said.

The WFP in Haiti has received 13 percent of the $96 million dollars it needs to run its program over the next two years.

It is also asking for an additional $3 million to $4 million in emergency aid that would provide 100,000 poor families with food baskets for about two months.

Earlier this year, the executive director of the Rome-based WFP, Josette Sheeran, was in Washington warning lawmakers of a pending food crisis and appealing for $500 million in emergency funds.

In Haiti, it is not clear how much the price of rice will decrease in the marketplace under Mr. Preval’s plan.

“Reducing the price per sack by $8 won’t change anything,” said Gerald Baptiste, who sells rice by the can in the poor neighborhood of La Saline.

“A little can is still going to sell for $3. It’s not enough. The price needs to go down to $2 at the most,” he said.

Imported rice has become the most important food staple in Haiti.

After the ouster of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, a U.S.-backed military regime slashed tariffs, allowing rice and other cheap imports from the United States and the Dominican Republic to flood Haitian markets.

“In 1987, when rice began being imported at a cheap price, many people applauded,” Mr. Preval said April 9 in a televised speech aiming to stop the protests. “But cheap imported rice destroyed [locally grown] rice. Today, imported rice has become expensive, and our national production is in ruins. That’s why subsidizing imported food is not the answer.”

Mr. Preval promised support for farmers to revive rice growing, including a pledge to cut the price of fertilizer in half with help from Venezuela.

But the effect of supporting domestic rice growers will provide no immediate relief.

“Preval can’t talk to us about agrarian reform anymore,” said unemployed protester Louidi Saintilome. “The situation has degenerated too much.”

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