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8031: Haiti's street merchants suffer blow of civil unrest (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
Haiti's street merchants suffer blow of civil
By Trenton Daniel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 2 - (Reuters) - Edner Eliscor sets up shop
on a shady sidewalk in downtown Port-au-Prince six days a week, selling
ceramic plates, silverware and drinking glasses.
The days are long, the pay is low and the heat relentless. But the
54-year-old mother of two must support her children and impoverished Haiti
does not offer many jobs.
Bad as it is, Eliscor's work only gets worse when violent street riots
interrupt her 7 a.m.-to-5:30 p.m. shift. She is forced to head home
empty-handed and her children go hungry.
"I didn't dare come because otherwise thugs would come and break my
things," she said, referring to the few days of civil unrest that jolted
the Caribbean nation last month. "The disorder is not good. I can't work. I
can't feed my children."
Since mid-March violent and intimidating street demonstrations and a
perceived increase in random killings have kept Haiti on edge, preventing
the ubiquitous street merchants -- the "Ti Machann" women who line the
thoroughfares selling cigarettes and candy -- from earning their daily
The protests have geared up since a political rally turned violent
last month. Supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide shut down the
capital and provincial cities by burning tires and threw stones at
motorists and the headquarters of the political opposition, who have named
a "provisional president" in a bid to challenge Aristide's legitimacy.
Protesters in a downtown slum erected flaming barricades and called
for the arrest of a newly promoted seaport chief they suspected of killing
an employee who received a promotion before her death.
Whatever their intentions, the protests hurt Haitians who need the
money the most: the Ti Machann. "They have to sell every day. If they
don't, they lose money that day. There's nothing left if they lose one day
of selling," said Anne Hastings, director general of Fonkoze, an
"alternative bank for the poor" whose clients overwhelmingly are Ti
"The Ti Machann are the backbone of the Haitian economy. They are the
economic base of the family in Port-au-Prince."
Most are women and, like Eliscor, support several children whose
fathers have abandoned them, Hastings said. The daily earnings collected
from peddling single cigarettes and snacks -- broken down in the smallest
unit possible to be purchased -- enable their children to stay in school.
"They have children and they shoulder the responsibility. They have
two children by one man and three children by another ... and they have to
put their children in school," she said.
Street merchants contribute as much as 70 percent of Haiti's economy,
local bankers say.
The unemployment rate of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western
Hemisphere, is around 80 percent. But Pierre-Marie Boisson, chief economist
of local SogeBank and a former World Bank employee, estimates that real
unemployment is much lower, at around 20 percent.
Ten percent of workers belong to the formal economy -- the elite few
who have full-time jobs. The other 70 percent make up the informal economy:
entrepreneurs who sell bicycle pumps and sunglasses and repair cars but pay
no taxes, rent or fees.
Boisson, who also oversees SogeSol, a micro-loan program started last
July for the parallel economy, said the street merchants make about $9.50 a
day, almost five times the minimum wage of $2 a day, barely enough to pay
Haiti's sinking economy -- the GDP per capita is around $460 --
compels the Ti Machann to go to their curbside spots even though they fear
sporadic shootings and violence will erupt at any moment. And when the city
heats up, the merchants have no choice but to go home.
"When you have big, big days of unrest, like we had several weeks ago,
they close down and leave the place," said Boisson. "It limits the kind of
business you can do."