Food Riots Lead to Haitian Meltdown

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Jacques Edouard Alexis talks to Senators in parliament in Port-au-Prince April 12, 2008.

The good news is that there hasn't been a coup d'etat in Haiti in the wake of violent protests over increased food prices. However Saturday's vote by 16 of the country's 27 lawmakers to oust Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis means that the country is in the middle of a severe leadership crisis — and that Haiti's Head of State, President Rene Preval, is now politically impotent, bereft of his chief executive.

Preval, who called the Senate vote on Alexis unjust, must now present a new candidate to parliament. Meanwhile, the government is in a lame duck position, with all current cabinet ministers, as well as other secretaries of state in appointed positions, reduced to caretakers. It could be some time before the lawmakers approve a new candidate since there is no majority party in the legislature.

And here's where the bad news truly lies: what started out as a protest against food and fuel prices has segued into a political mine field. High prices have effected everyone. But for some Haitians the stakes are higher. Factions that have lost power or influence over the last few years — such as those supporting ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide as well as industrialists and military officers still angry over the dismantling of the army in 1994 — have begun making their moves. Harping on the food crisis and perhaps threatening more street agitation, they are likely to pressure Preval into appointing a candidate they think will work to their advantage. As in the past, the resulting compromises are likely to lead to the political divisions, disorder and ineffectiveness that plunged Haiti into chaos. The leadership vacuum may worsen if the Senators go after Preval himself, which some observers predict.

Already, politics is heating up the streets again. Shortly after Parliament censured Alexis on Saturday, several dozen protesters gathered outside the building and began to chant "Aristide or Death." The charismatic Aristide, a former priest who has nevertheless been charged with human rights abuses committed during his presidency, was forced into exile in 2004 and is currently living in South Africa. Meanwhile, emails are circulating accusing Aristide supporters of instigating the demonstrations that shut down the capital last week. Among the Aristide supporters named is activist priest Gerard Jean-Juste, a former political rival of Preval's who was barred from running against him in 2006.

To head off the food issue, Preval has pledged to promote egg, chicken and rice production and subsidize fertilizer costs; the World Bank has promised $10 million in emergency aid and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has agreed to send 364 tons of food, including chicken, milk and lentils. But in Haiti, even the smallest of economic fissures very quickly widen to swallow up any attempt at political equilibrium.

Violence remains near the surface as people search for scapegoats. Just a short distance away from the legislative palace, a Nigerian U.N. peacekeeper was killed execution-style in a crowded market in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Protesters were shouting "Down with MINUSTAH" — the French acronym for the 8,000-strong U.N. mission. Haiti still does not have an effective security force.

So although most cities and towns have resumed a cautious normality, few Haitians feel reassured. The high cost of living continues to persist; and the government is virtually non-existent. Worse, there's no guarantee when a new administration will be installed. And even if one is established, will it be equipped to handle the country's problems any better than the one that was just removed?