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U.N. soldier killed in Haiti's riots over food

A U.N. soldier was killed Saturday in the Haitian capital, the recent site of deadly riots over rising food prices, according to a mission spokeswoman.
Image: A Haitian woman shows a dish with rice, main ingredient of the Haitian diet,
A Haitian woman shows a dish with rice, the main ingredient of the Haitian diet, at Petion Ville market in Port-au-Prince.Kena Betancur / EPA
/ Source: news services

A U.N. soldier was killed Saturday in the Haitian capital, the recent site of deadly riots over rising food prices, according to a mission spokeswoman.

U.N. troops did not return fire after the soldier was shot, spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe said. The soldier was a member of a 1,000-strong unit that deals with riots, she said. She had no further details.

Protesters clashed with U.N. soldiers earlier this week and have blamed the government for a failure to create jobs and control escalating food prices. Haiti's Senate on Saturday ousted Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis over the handling of the crisis.

A small group that gathered near the Port-au-Prince marketplace said troops had fired tear gas at them.

They chanted "Down with MINUSTAH," referring to the French acronym for the U.N. force. A small fire burned nearby as vendors gathered their belongings.

PM ousted
Earlier in the day, 16 of 17 senators who attended a special session of the chamber voted against Alexis, who was inaugurated in June 2006 along with a coalition cabinet meant to unite the fractious Caribbean nation of nearly 9 million people.

"Now it's my turn to play," said President Rene Preval when he was told by journalists of the Senate vote against his ally. The vote came shortly after he and leaders of the private sector had revealed an emergency plan to cut the cost of a sack of rice to $43 from $51.

Dealt what political analysts consider a serious blow by the senate vote but not a crushing one, Preval said he would be getting in touch with Senate leaders and legislators from the lower house to pick a new government.

Five killed in riots
The clash with senators came after days of rioting over food prices in which at least five people were killed.

Crowds of stone-throwing Haitians began battling U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police in the south of the country on April 2, enraged at the soaring cost of rice, beans, bread, cooking oil and other staples.

The unrest spread to the capital Port-au-Prince this week, bringing the sprawling and chaotic city to a halt as mobs took over the streets, smashing windows, looting shops and setting fire to cars.

Preval, whose appeal on Wednesday for an end to the violence brought a tense calm to the capital, said $3 of the cut in the price of would be paid by businesses. The rest would be funded by international donors.

"The situation is difficult everywhere around the world, everyone has to make a sacrifice," he told a news conference on Saturday in the opulent National Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince.

"We are not going to lower taxes on food...," he said, reiterating that the poorest country in the Americas could not afford to cut its revenues or it would not have enough money to pay for longer term projects that create jobs and boost agriculture.

Food costs have soared worldwide because of a combination of surging demand in emerging countries such as China, competition with biofuels, high oil prices and market speculation. Disturbances have broken out in a host of poor nations, primarily in Africa.

Globally, food prices have risen 40 percent since mid-2007. Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 a day, is particularly affected because it imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice.

Much of Haiti's once-productive farmland has been abandoned as farmers struggle to grow crops in soil decimated by erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms.

Struggles of the poor
For Joseph Francious, the food riots made scrounging for something to eat even harder. A frenzy of violence and gunfire kept the unemployed father of two from venturing out to beg for three days.

By Thursday afternoon, after the bandits and looters retreated, Francois was able to spend 67 cents on a small bowl of rice to be shared by his two young children. There was nothing left for himself or his girlfriend.

"Most of the time we get up and have nothing to eat. We just pray for the sun to go down so we can go to sleep," said Francois, frayed jeans hanging loosely on his scrawny frame beneath a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.

Hunger has long been a fact of life in the overcrowded slums that ring the Haitian capital, but soaring food prices have made the struggles of Haiti's poor unbearable. Francois buys rice from a woman whose prices have more than doubled over the past six months, from 27 cents to 67 cents for a small bowl. Other staples like spaghetti have doubled as well. The violence has only made things worse.

"The country was upside down. I couldn't go out, so the kids had no food," said Francois, who lives with 3-year-old Bechina, 4-year-old Charlie and his girlfriend Betty Joseph in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse in a slum called "Ideal City."

Some aid was on its way Friday. Brazil, which has about 1,200 peacekeepers serving in Haiti, sent an air force plane with 14 tons of food, including beans, sugar and cooking oil. France pledged food and other aid worth $1.6 million. The U.N. World Food Program, which had collected only 15 percent of its Haiti budget before the riots, appealed for donations to meet its $96 million goal.

But the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Friday that high food prices in the developing world are unlikely to subside anytime soon as price speculation and market failures counteract increases in food production.

This spells disaster in a nation where the World Bank says per capita income is just $480 a year.

Francois, gaunt and balding at 32, doesn't even have that much. Hired as a "transportation inspector" last year by the mayor of the nearby Cite Soleil slum, he has no salary — just an identification card that can be used in the slums to exact bribes or collect fees. His 25-year-old girlfriend also does not work. With no education or skills, their job prospects aren't good in a place where most eligible adults are unemployed.

Mostly, Francois depends on handouts from neighbors and friends. He begs in the street. If all else fails, he hunts for scraps in the garbage piles at the nearby La Saline market, in view of towering stacks of U.S.-produced rice he cannot afford.

Violence in the streets
On Thursday, some protesters threw rocks at a U.N. building in the Martissant slum, and tires burned elsewhere in the city. But routine business resumed across most of Port-au-Prince, an impoverished capital of 2 million people, as cars and motorcycles formed long lines at gas stations that had been closed for days.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international medical aid group, has treated almost 170 wounded people during three days of riots — as many as it usually treats in a month — according to mission leader Jessica Neerkorn. Many of the wounded came from the Martissant area.

A Haitian policeman was injured in the northwestern town of Gonaives, Haitian police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said. In the south, rioters clashed with police in Jacmel and at least 2,000 people marched peacefully in Nippes.

The U.S.-backed leader blamed soaring food costs on Haiti's dependence on foreign imports and a badly damaged infrastructure that makes shipping difficult. A trained agronomist, Preval also pledged to build up Haitian agriculture and make the country more self-sufficient, offering government loans to help farmers afford fertilizer.

His message was lost on this couple. Like thousands of urban poor in the capital, they fled the hopelessness of the countryside in their youth. At age 10, Francois was given away by his rural parents to a family in Port-au-Prince, who forced him to work as a servant until he turned 18.

Eating dirt cookies
For them, promises to grow more food in the increasingly barren countryside are meaningless.

"By the time rice grows here, we'll all be dead," Francois said. "Preval is a country man. He should go plant rice."

In Haitian slang, Francois and Joseph describe their hunger pangs as "eating Clorox" because of the burning sensation in their guts. Flashing a sheepish smile, Joseph said they sometimes resort to a traditional hunger palliative — cookies made of dirt, salt and butter.

Charlie, in a red T-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals, held his head up with his hand and appeared weak as he walked slowly to the door. Bechina, in a Winnie the Pooh shirt and matching underwear, started to cry, her big eyes welling up.

"Look at my children," Francois said. "They are hungry."