Food Crisis Renews Haiti's Agony

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Jack Tierney / AP

People carry a wounded man during an anti-government demonstration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 7, 2008. Protesters angered by high food prices flooded the streets, forcing businesses and schools to close.

Haitians are no strangers to hunger. But even the resilience of the hemisphere's poorest citizens can be pushed too far, and with world food prices spiking this year due to shrinking harvests, burgeoning demand and skyrocketing fuel prices, it should be little surprise that Haiti is once again erupting in angry violence.

As unrest spread from the countryside, protesters shut down the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Tuesday to decry lavi che — the Creole term for the high cost of living. Gunshot wounds have killed several people this week and injured a Haitian journalist. Rioters broke down two gates to the National Palace before they were stopped by United Nations peacekeepers; Haitian National Police, who number around 8,000, are securing government buildings but have not yet been able to dismantle the barricades of rocks and burning tires that have closed off most of the major roads.

All businesses, schools and government activities have ground to a halt, reminiscent of bloody protests that have plagued this country for the last several decades — most recently in 2004, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown. President Rene Preval, respected for his probity but criticized for his lack of leadership and statesmanship, has been trying to improve Haiti's squalid conditions since taking office in 2006, but demonstrators squeezed by spiraling food costs say they're tired of waiting for a solution to their constant hunger. "We used to be hungry enough to drink Clorox," a local mechanic told TIME by phone from Port-au-Prince. "Now it's battery acid — it gets the job done quicker." Last week, Preval had said he understood the frustrations, and quipped that if people started to protest, they should stop by the palace and pick him up. In an ironic twist, that may have prompted them to break into the palace Monday. Preval did not join the protesters, and he's yet to say anything publicly since then.

The cost of staple foods has risen some 50% in Haiti since last year, a crushing trend in a country where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Only Somalia and Afghanistan have a higher per capita daily deficit in calorie intake than Haiti does. (The figure in Haiti is 460 calories below the United Nations' daily minimum of 2,100.) The U.N.'s World Food Program says it has received only 13% of the $96 million it needs to help Haiti's 10 million people in 2008 — barely enough to support its operations there through the end of this month. Due to an estimated 55% rise in global food and fuel prices since last summer, the WFP last month made an extraordinary appeal to donors for an extra $500 million this year. At least eight other poor nations in Africa and Asia have recently experienced food-related unrest.

Haiti's turbulence began last week when food riots broke out in the southern city of Les Cayes. It's hard to know what sparked Tuesday's explosion in the capital — protests in the countryside have been simmering for weeks, and have only recently trickled into Port-au-Prince, where nearly a quarter of the population lives. It's also difficult to know if the protests were organized or spontaneous. If Haiti's history is any example, whenever riots break out its weak security system collapses, giving way to a free-for-all that allows anyone with a vendetta an opportunity to settle scores.

Despite the best of intentions of a relatively honest government supported by a U.N. peacekeeping force, it's uncertain whether Preval can overcome his country's troubled legacy. And the turmoil in the world economy has diminished his chances of success. "We're back to square one," says a Haitian merchant in Port-au-Prince. So far, the police and peacekeepers have been instructed not to retaliate against the protesters, who in addition to burning buildings have also looted numerous retail stores. Patrick Gardere, whose showroom was ransacked Monday, fears that store owners may then take things into their own hands. "It's been quiet now," he said, "but if business owners have to protect themselves, that's how civil war starts." One Roman Catholic priest in Port-au-Prince, who called Haiti's situation a "near-famine," told the Associated Press this week, "Some can't take the hunger anymore." If "some" turns into many or most, as seems likely, the world may once again have to watch the hemisphere's poorest nation be reduced to one of the most violent.