PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitian lawmakers last Saturday dismissed Prime
Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis, hoping to defuse widespread anger over
rising food prices that had led to days of deadly protests and looting.
President René Préval, who earlier in the day announced plans to cut the price of rice, immediately said he would seek a replacement for Alexis, who took office in 2006 with Préval’s backing to head a Cabinet meant to unite the poor and fractious nation.
“I think that will satisfy the people,” said Sen. Youri Latortue following the vote in parliament in which 16 of 27 lawmakers backed Alexis’ ouster. Latortue said lawmakers ousted the prime minister because he did not boost food production and refused to set a date for the departure of U.N. peacekeepers.
But about 25 people gathered outside the national palace after the dismissal, chanting “Aristide or death,” in reference to exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
U.N. peacekeepers called Alexis’ dismissal a “serious setback” and said they look forward to the early appointment of a new government, according to mission spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe.
The prime minister’s ouster reflects frustration over soaring food prices in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day and chronic hunger had become unbearable in recent months.
The rage erupted in violent clashes with U.N. peacekeepers and looting across Haiti that had abated by late last Thursday, but not before leaving five people dead. Protesters even stormed the presidential palace two days earlier, charging its main gate with a rolling dumpster and yelling for Préval to step down.
On Saturday, U.N. military commander Maj. Gen. Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz told The Associated Press that calm was returning across the country, with some transportation resuming and people going back to work.
But Haiti could encounter more chaos with Alexis’ ousting, according to Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. He said the dismissal creates a political vacuum and that senators might now go after Préval because he has not implemented many changes.
“President Préval has to be careful. Any time President Préval has to engage himself speaking, he also needs to engage the private sector in his discussions,” said Senator Jean Hector Anacasis, a member of Préval’s Lespwa party.
Emmanuel Joseph, a 26-year-old from the seaside slum of Cité Soleil, said residents there planned to protest Monday because they are hungry.
Some residents felt their plight would not improve regardless of the dismissal.
“Alexis left? What’s the difference?” asked Jackson Aubri, a 28-year-old chicken vendor.
In another bid to deal with anger of food prices, Préval said last Saturday that the price of a 50-pound bag of rice would drop from $51 to $43.
The price reduction went into effect immediately and will last for one month, at which point government officials will reassess the economic situation.
The Haitian president said the government will use international aid money to subsidize the price of rice and that the private sector has agreed to knock $3 off the price of each bag.
Globally, food prices have risen 40 percent since mid-2007. Haiti is particularly affected because it imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice. Much of its once-productive farmland has been abandoned as farmers struggle to grow crops in soil decimated by erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms.
The U.S. State Department last Friday issued a statement banning government officials from traveling to Haiti following the violent demonstrations.
It also advised American citizens to consider leaving the impoverished Caribbean country where protests over high costs of living left five dead in the countryside. The warning comes despite a general sense of calm settling over Port-au-Prince.
“If you don’t need to stay, you might consider departing,” said James Ellickson-Brown, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.
An estimated 19,000 U.S. citizens live in Haiti, most dual-nationals who live in the capital. More than 140 American citizens have been kidnapped since 2005, but few were short-term visitors, the U.S. Embassy said.