Thu, Jun 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Aristide's ouster hasn't filled any Haitian bellies

Many Haitians rely on cheap rice for their one meal a day. But a decrease in global rice supplies has pushed prices up, and graft and looting haven't helped

By Time Weiner  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PORT-AU-PRINCE

One lesson of life in Haiti is to never say things cannot get any worse. They can, and they have.

People say they have less money, less food, and less hope since the start of the February revolt that toppled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For most Haitians, this has nothing to do with last week's deadly floods, which left 1,000 dead and 1,600 missing in Haiti, according to Monday's official government estimate.

It has to do with the price of rice.

The cost of rice has soared in the past four months, and to live in Haiti, one must have rice.

On the Rue de Miracles, one of the capital's biggest sidewalk markets, where thousands buy and sell the necessities of life, people talk of little else. Every conversation that starts with politics ends with the price of rice.

Many Haitians eat one meal a day. The main course is rice, and the price of a 110-pound sack doubled, from US$22.50 to US$45, between late January and early May. That price has dropped to about US$37 in the last few weeks, but it is still too high, said Clermathe Baron, 29, who sells the big white sacks across the street from the Haitian customs office, near the port.

"Life for the people of Haiti was better under Aristide because rice was less expensive," said Baron, not a big fan of the former president, as an American military helicopter hummed overhead.

"Even though it's more expensive now, I make the same as I did before," she said. "These high prices are not to my advantage. They're not to anyone's advantage, except maybe a few big importers and a few people in the Customs House. They always seem to have money."

less and less

People who buy rice by the pound say the price also doubled, and it has stayed that high.

"We have less and less to eat," said Nadia Casmir, 21, who sells crackers, cookies and powdered milk from a sidewalk stall, and lives with her mother, aunt and three nieces and nephews. "Things were better before. I'm not making a living. I've had to raise my prices, but people have less money, so they can't buy what we are selling."

Aristide, unsurprisingly, agrees that things have gotten worse since he was overthrown on Feb. 29.

"The level of suffering has dramatically increased in Haiti," he said, before leaving a temporary exile in Jamaica and arriving on Monday in South Africa, which offered him refuge. Aristide, who says he is still Haiti's elected leader, received a head-of-state's welcome in Johannesburg from South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.

But Haitian businessmen say Aristide's government kept the price of rice down through corruption.

One leading importer said an Aristide crony received a near-exclusive concession on rice imports and evaded customs duties. This evasion allowed the rice concessionaire to cut about US$3 a bag off the market price, pass some of the savings on to the market, and pocket the rest.

"It was kind of a monopoly" under Aristide, said Danielle St. Lot, Haiti's new minister of commerce.

The price of rice in Haiti now depends on global, national, and local political forces, say government officials and private businessmen.

Haiti used to grow its own rice. But its agriculture has collapsed over the past two decades, crushed by poverty, environmental destruction and foreign imports. While rice production crashed, demand soared: Haiti's population has grown from 5 million to 8 million in the past 20 years.

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