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#5071: Haiti strikes planned to protest jump in price of gasoline (fwd)
Published Monday, September 11, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Haiti strikes planned to protest jump in price of gasoline
End to subsidy triggers surge BY YVES COLON
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Gasoline distributors and owners of private buses
plan to shut down this city in coming days to protest a near-doubling of
the price of gasoline. Gas stations will be closed for three days, while
taxi drivers and operators of the colorful tap-tap buses will hold a
one-day strike today, the first day of school. Some public
transportation will be available, as the government has spent the
past three years setting up a fleet of more than 100 buses. But they're
not expected to be enough for a city of more than two million, where
nearly everyone uses public transportation. ``This is just going to be
horrible,'' said Mercelia Dieujeune, a mother of three. ``I
just don't know what I'm going to do.'' Last week, the government cut
off its gasoline subsidy, sending the price skyrocketing by 44 percent
to $2.50 a gallon. That hike triggered a jump in fares
that is expected to generate new misery in this already poor country.
``I'm going to have to take money from food to pay for the bus,'' said
Dieujeune, who sells food, gum and sweets from a downtown stand.
``Nobody wants something like that.'' Disruption is expected. Businesses
are not expected to open, because most workers won't get to work.
Families such as Dieujeune's, which rely on public
transportation, will have to find alternatives to get around.
COST OF EATING
Food prices are going up, too. Much of the food is either imported or
is trucked in from the countryside. A pack of cigarettes now costs an
extra 10 cents. A case of Coca-Cola now sells for an extra two dollars.
A sense of doom blankets Haiti, just a week after a controversial
decision to seat a new parliament following national elections widely
viewed as tainted. The value of the gourde, the local currency, has
fallen to 22 to the U.S. dollar, compared to 18 to the dollar before the
first round of elections in May. The rate is the lowest
since a United Nations economic embargo ended in July 1994.
`A REAL MESS'
``We're having a real mess in the economy now,'' said Kesner Pharel, an
economist with the private consulting firm Group Croissance. ``Everyone
is finding it difficult to manage their lives. People are very
depressed.' Haitians inside and outside the country had hoped the recent
elections, the first in more than three years, would stop the economy's
free fall and usher in a stable democracy after decades of dictatorship
and military rule. Instead, their fear of worse days ahead has increased
after international observers said election officials had miscalculated
results in first-round voting, weighting the runoff in favor of the
Lavalas Family party of former president Jean-Bertrand
Aristide. At issue are 10 Senate seats that international critics said
should have been decided in a runoff because no candidate won an
Then, earlier this week, the Clinton administration vowed to impose
economic sanctions against Haiti unless it strengthens democratic
procedures in advance of presidential and legislative elections set for
Nov. 26. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who was ousted in an
army coup and restored to the presidency by a U.S.-led invasion in 1994,
is widely expected to win the presidential election. The United States,
which bankrolled the two rounds of legislative elections this
year, said it will not finance the presidential election.
``Lots of people are leaving the country; I call them the Boeing
people, instead of the boat people,'' said Pharel. ``They're losing
their jobs. They're just moving. The middle class has been hit very hard
for the past 10 years, with an embargo six years ago and now this. . . .
They see there's no future.''
The United States would send nearly all bilateral assistance to the
people of Haiti through private and nongovernmental organizations,
bypassing the Haitian government. Officials also raised the possibility
that the United States would oppose Haitian loan requests made to
international lenders. U.S. officials ealier had spoken of the
possibility of punitive measures, but only in general terms.
Many are predicting trouble
The fuel-price hike also likely will worsen Haiti's political turmoil,
said an analyst who requested that his name not be used. Foreign
investment has been slowed by the government's virtual paralysis since
early 1997 when national elections were declared fraudulent and the
prime minister resigned. ``People are not investing in the country,''
said Pharel, who believes the general strike will further hurt the
economy. ``Production is going down, so we have to
import more and more goods, especially food. As our exports are so low,
we have a big deficit, creating pressure on the dollar. We need more
gourdes to buy dollars, so if I'm going to import I need to pass on the
price to the customers.'' Lately, the Haitian central bank has been
printing gourdes ``like crazy,'' Pharel said.