After Protests, Haitian Leader Announces Rice Subsidies

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The New York Times

After Protests, Haitian Leader Announces Rice Subsidies

by
Marc Lacey

MEXICO CITY - Responding to violent street protests against rising food prices that ground Haiti to a halt over the last week, President René Préval announced subsidies on Saturday that he said would cut the cost of rice by more than 15 percent.0414 05

But the emergency move was not enough to stop Haitian senators from voting to remove Mr. Préval's prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, who has been blamed for handling the struggling economy ineptly.

The demonstrations had begun in the southern city of Les Cayes and spread across Haiti, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets, spurring a looting spree and causing five deaths.

On Saturday the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti told reporters that calm was returning to the country. But within hours, a United Nations policeman from Nigeria was pulled from his marked car and killed in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Préval, a former agronomist who is in his second term as president, met earlier in the day with food importers at the presidential palace and emerged to announce new measures that he said would knock the price of a 50-pound bag of rice from $51 to $43, a nearly 16 percent reduction. In the poorest country in the hemisphere, that discount could mean the difference between eating and going hungry for many destitute families.

Rice is a Haitian staple, often mixed in the slums with chicken feet to create a flavorful stew. To reduce prices, Mr. Préval said he would use international aid money combined with commitments from the private sector to reduce profit margins.

The vote against Prime Minister Alexis means Mr. Préval must reconstitute his government, which he said he would do promptly. Mr. Alexis had managed to withstand a previous no-confidence vote but this time 16 of the 17 senators voted against him, wire services reported.

The tumult is nothing new in Haiti, a fragile country with a history of political turnover that is being held together largely through the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. The Bush administration considers Mr. Préval's 2006 election and Haiti's relative stability in recent years to be one of its success stories, although State Department officials caution that the country remains volatile.

With the recent demonstrations, the Coast Guard has said it is on the lookout for mass emigration.

It is unclear how the president's move will affect tensions. Even after the United Nations police officer was killed, much of Port-au-Prince seemed largely tranquil.

But in the clothing market where the police officer was killed, other peacekeepers took up positions as several stalls on both sides of the street smoldered after being set on fire, The Associated Press reported. The police officer had been driving a marked United Nations vehicle in the crowded market when he was killed.

Witnesses told The A.P. that other Nigerian police officers later fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the crowd before recovering the slain man's body. Soon after, the market stalls could be seen burning.

Rising food prices are a global concern, with some estimates putting the increase as high as 40 percent since mid-2007.

In Haiti, though, where the bulk of the population lives on less than $2 a day, the effects have been especially acute. In one slum of Port-au-Prince, a woman sat before a large pot of chicken feet and water recently, selling stew without rice. She said the rice was too costly.

© 2008 The New York Times

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