PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds of Haitians stood in long lines last
Saturday, just as others had walked for hours throughout the week to
receive the U.N. and regional food aid pouring into the country after a
spate of deadly riots.
But amid the tenuous calm, aid groups say they are just buying time — and long-term solutions seem remote in the desperately poor nation.
“The beans might last four days,” said Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children who emerged from a churchyard last Friday with small bags of food. “The rice will be gone as soon as I get home.”
Rodman was one of the lucky ones. Many others arrived after the distribution centers had run out.
Haitian officials handed out 1,000 bags of U.N.-bought food last Saturday in Cité Soleil, a huge seaside slum on the eastern edge of the capital. Though aid was limited to women over age 57 and the handicapped, at least 50 people who waited in line were turned away.
Claudete Depalis, 60, left empty-handed after hoping to get food for the 12 children of extended family who live in her home.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with these kids today,” she said.
More than half of Haiti’s nearly 9 million people live on less than $2 a day, and the rise in food prices has deepened the country’s misery.
Market stalls are piled with papayas and small bags of pasta, even in poor areas. But vast numbers of people simply lack money to buy them because global food and commodity prices have risen 40 percent over the past year.
At least seven people were killed in the food riots this month that cost Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis his job.
The riots also were a setback to international efforts to stabilize the country, U.N. envoy Hédi Annabi said. U.N. peacekeepers came after a violent rebellion ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
“We now need to turn this around, draw the lessons from this crisis and move ahead,” Annabi told The Associated Press.
The United Nations says it will distribute 8,000 tons of food and other aid in the next two months. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has pledged more than 350 tons of food. And U.S. President George W. Bush has ordered the release of $200 million in emergency aid to nations hit hardest by surging food prices — though it was not immediately clear how much Haiti would get.
Brazil has given some 18 tons of food since the crisis began.
“It’s not much. We are aware of that, but it’s something,” Brazilian Ambassador Igor Kipman told the AP at the churchyard in a part of the capital known as Cité Militaire. “You have an emergency, people are hungry, so we are handing out some food for the immediate problem.”
As he spoke, Brazilian marines gave out rice, sugar, beans and cooking oil, while others armed with shotguns and automatic rifles stood guard or monitored the scene from armored vehicles and rooftops.
Hundreds of people, including many small children, thronged the steel gates outside another church, where aid workers were giving out bags of food donated by Venezuela.
Relief group World Vision said food distribution this week in Haiti’s Central Plateau, north of the capital, drew about 800 people over two days, some who had walked more than three hours.
The sharp rise in prices has thrown some of those who could barely support themselves into the throngs of the utterly destitute.
Rodman said he was so desperate to feed his family that he pawned the tools he used to make furniture and now has no way to earn an income. The 38-year-old said his wife is angry and frustrated.
“She tells me to go out and get a job, buy some food,” he said, drying his tears with his dusty, blue Puma T-shirt. “This is the first time I’ve had to lower myself and come get this food.”
Since the riots a little more than a week ago, the U.N. multinational force of about 9,000 soldiers and police and Haitian police have increased patrols and checkpoints, hoping to catch gang members and confiscate weapons. Many fear that violence could easily return.
“Things are back to normal but it’s precarious, it’s fragile,” said Fred Blaise, the spokesman for the U.N. police force.
But most agree the short-term situation is bleak. Haiti’s economy has been shattered by years of political turmoil. The nation’s infrastructure is in a shambles and its agricultural sector has been devastated by inefficiency, cheaper imports — primarily from the U.S. — and a shortage of arable land.
World Vision, which is distributing $80 million of U.S. aid in Haiti over five years, says it is trying to raise private donations to buy more food and will distribute seeds and tools in the countryside, where the poverty is most extreme.
Aid groups are also struggling with higher prices and say they do not have huge stocks that they can easily divert from one needy group to another.
“We are dealing with a very fluid situation,” said Rose Kimeu of World Vision. “People are getting angrier and angrier.”