PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Hungry Haitians stormed the presidential palace yesterday to demand the resignation of President René Préval over soaring food prices, and UN peacekeepers chased them away with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Food prices, which have risen 40 percent on average since mid-2007, are causing unrest around the world. But nowhere do they pose a greater threat to democracy than in Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries where in the best of times most people struggle to fill their bellies.
"I think we have made progress in stabilizing the country, but that progress is extremely fragile, highly reversible, and made even more fragile by the current socioeconomic environment," UN envoy Hedi Annabi said yesterday after briefing the Security Council.
For months, Haitians have compared their hunger pains to "eating Clorox" because of the burning feeling in their stomachs. The most desperate have come to depend on a traditional hunger palliative of cookies made of dirt, vegetable oil, and salt.
Riots broke out in the normally placid southern port of Les Cayes last week, quickly escalating as protesters tried to burn a UN compound and leaving five people dead. The protests spread to other cities; on Monday, tens of thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Yesterday, demonstrators in the capital set fires, barricaded streets, and looted stores, and a crowd tried to break down the gates of the presidential palace, demanding Préval's resignation.
"We are hungry!" the crowd shouted. "He must go!"
Préval, a soft-spoken leader backed by Washington, was at work in the palace during the protests, aides said. He has made no public statements since the riots began.
The protesters also demanded the departure of the 9,000 UN peacekeepers, whom they blame in part for rising food prices. The peacekeepers came to Haiti in 2004 to quell the chaos that followed the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president.
They helped usher in a democratic transition, but critics say both Préval and the international community have focused too much on political stability without helping to alleviate poverty. That could spell trouble not only for Préval, but for Haiti's fragile democracy as well.
"We voted Préval for a change. Nothing happened," said Joel Elie, 31, who like many Haitians is unemployed. "We're tired of it, and we can't wait anymore."
While the UN spends more than $500 million a year for peacekeepers in Haiti, the World Food Program has collected less than 15 percent of the $96 million it says Haiti needs in donations this year. The program issued an emergency appeal Monday for more.
Meanwhile, new customs procedures aimed at collecting revenues and stopping the flow of drugs have left tons of food rotting in ports, especially in the country's north. In a nation where almost all food is imported, cargo traffic from Miami ground nearly to a halt, though shippers say intervention by Préval last month has improved the situation somewhat.
Government officials say the riots are being manipulated by outside forces, specifically drug smugglers who can operate more easily amid chaos, and by supporters of Guy Philippe, a fugitive rebel leader wanted in US federal court in connection with a drug indictment.