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9600: Haitians find night life at convenience stores (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

     By Trenton Daniel

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Claudel Boursiquot and his
buddies like to hang out at petrol stations on weekend nights, enjoying a
few cold beers while trading gossip and arguing over Haiti's best-known
     The brightly lit, air-conditioned petrol station/convenience stores
have become the hottest nightspots in Haiti.
     "They're aren't many other places to relax," Boursiquot, a student,
said outside a convenience store in the middle-class Port-au-Prince
neighborhood of Turgeau. "There isn't electricity. There aren't lights (in
the rest of the city). So we come here to relax."
     Haitians have flocked to the U.S.-style convenience stores since they
started blossoming in the poor Caribbean nation in the late 1990s.
     In a country plagued by frequent power blackouts and endemic street
crime, air conditioning, fluorescent lights and armed security guards make
the petrol stations the place to be.
     They can buy food, beverages and gasoline late at night and hang out
in a cool, clean and safe environment where -- for some with a de rigueur
cell phone in hand -- they can see and be seen.
     The stores, mostly located in Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, are
modeled after those in the United States. The squeaky-clean shops offer an
eclectic array of food and drink such as pizza, New York-style submarine
sandwiches, and, at some locations, Trinidadian dishes and French crepes.
     "The concept of the Star Mart is exactly like the ones in the United
States," said Gerard Maingrette, a manager for a Texaco convenience store
in the Juvenat district close to the relatively affluent Petionville suburb
of the capital.
     "But in Haiti, it's not the same thing. They (Haitians) want a place
to hang out. You have air conditioning, you have lights, you have life.
That's why they come here. It's the only place that's bright in the area."
     Indeed, Maingrette's market and others like it -- owned by Esso,
Shell, and Elf -- usually serve as a neighborhood oasis. Across the street
in Juvenat, concrete hovels inch their way up a deforested hillside.
     Haiti, the Americas' poorest country, is struggling to shake a
turbulent history of military rule and dictatorships that have hindered
development. The majority of the population lives in poverty and the
minimum wage is less than $2 a day.
     Economic and living conditions have deteriorated further since
international donors suspended an aid package worth some $500 million. The
money remains on hold until President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and an
opposition alliance resolve a dispute over a contested May 2000 legislative
     The political and economic woes are in part what make the petrol
stations so popular, analysts say.
     "You have a depressed economy and fewer options," said economist
Jean-Claude Paulvin, president of ECOSOF, an economic consulting firm.
     Paulvin said the markets' popularity was due not only to the scarcity
of options but to two other factors: "It's new, number one, and it's clean,
number two. Because of that, they've gained popularity."
     Until the arrival of convenience stores, after a U.S.-led invasion
restored the ousted Aristide in 1994, fast food in Haiti consisted mostly
of street merchants selling griot, or fried pork, plantains, and rice and
     With many restaurants and bars either empty at night or going
bankrupt, the markets also offer a night-life option.
     To maintain a competitive edge and attract customers, petrol stations
throw nighttime parties for neighborhood residents whenever they launch a
new service.
     Banners and balloons decorate the store, and music blares outside. The
spacious parking lot is packed with people. It is like a block party, but
set under the blinding bright lights at a petrol station.
     Customers have their complaints. But they also realize that standards
are needed to keep the stations open all the time.
     "What I don't like is that it's so expensive, but we have to take it
like that," said Reginald Dupuy, 22, a construction worker, taking a sip of
beer. "It's open 24 hours, so it's expensive."
     Beers cost about $3 each, medium-size pizzas run around $7 and candy
bars $2.
     Still, the stores maintain their popularity.
     "Haitians are frustrated," said Dupuy's friend Jerry Paul. "It's
difficult to find a place where we can relax. But here we can."