Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Matches for Gasoline: A View From Haiti’s Food Riots

• May 09, 2008 • 5:28 PM

Haiti has been an early casualty of the latest global food crisis. Here, the Associated Press correspondent in Port-au-Prince provides a first-person report from the front lines.

Haiti was a prime first stop for a food crisis that has since ripped through Egypt, Bangladesh, Somalia and other countries. With its dependence on imported food and international aid, slum families living on less than a dollar a day struggling to afford a single bowl of rice and upscale supermarkets already charging New York grocery prices, the little Caribbean republic had no room for error.

The remarkable thing about Haiti is the speed with which a gentle and generous people, usually among the most polite I’ve ever met, can turn into a screaming, rock-throwing horde.

In Port-au-Prince, on April 7, it took the length of a morning. The capital had been on edge for months, with kidnappings for ransom picking up and spray-painted demands to end laviche, “the expensive life,” proliferating across the city’s endlessly graffited walls.

But while skyrocketing food prices were forcing parents who had once been merely poor to now choose between feeding themselves and their children, desperation was nothing new to the western end of Hispaniola. Haiti has the most widespread poverty, some of the worst malnutrition and the lowest life-expectancy in the hemisphere. One of the symbols of the worsening crisis — cakes made of mud, salt and vegetable shortening — had been eaten in the slums for decades, if in smaller numbers during relatively fatter times.

Rumors leading into Monday were that the capital was about to, in the usual Creole phrase, “turn upside down.” But a few hours after sunrise, when the streets have normally been packed for some time, it wasn’t clear if the whispers would prove true.

Haiti, which has barely known a minute’s peace since it threw out its French slave masters in an 1804 revolt, marked its bicentennial four years ago with yet another rebellion, bloodbath and ouster of a president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who departed aboard a U.S. plane. It took the Marines and an eventual 9,000-member United Nations force three years to effectively crush the gangs that metastasized in the vacuum.

A sloppy, U.N.-overseen 2006 election put Rene Preval, an agronomist and former Aristide protégé, in the national palace. Though swept in by Aristide’s followers, he earned their ire for not bringing their leader back from his South African exile. The masses blamed him for not creating work and failing to control food prices that had as much as doubled in the past year, and members of Port-au-Prince’s crucial business elite were unhappy that he showed too much deference to the omnipresent U.N. force.

It was generally agreed upon that both he and the international peacekeepers had until the end of his term in 2011, at most, to put Haiti on its economic feet and push the country to self-sufficiency before conflagration would return.

Then came the first week in April. Les Cayes, a remote southern port better known as a drug trafficking hub and hurricane target than a political hotbed, surprised most of us by exploding first. After days of gun battles, fires at the U.N. compound and mounting deaths in the street, the protesters, gunmen and foreign soldiers took the weekend off.

The normally raucous capital was dead quiet as we set off that following Monday morning down the hill to the Champs de Mars, a rattier if more accurately named stepchild to its Parisian ancestor. Public taxi drivers had declared a strike against ridiculous fuel prices, more than $6 a gallon — three to six times the average daily income — and the less impressive of their converted pickup trucks were lined up by the side of the road.

Having only been in the country for a short time (what felt like a decade had only taken six months to pass), I didn’t know what to expect. But our Haitian cameraman and armor-skinned Colombian photographer, about to see her fourth Haitian government in as many years, could smell what was coming from the early-morning embers of burned tires, the rocks and plastic toys strewn into a basic roadblock and the faint look of panic in the earliest demonstrators’ eyes.

The marches started peacefully. Thousands happily rallied in the Cite Soleil slum for Aristide’s return. Demonstrators next to the national palace cheered, waved tree branches and screamed “we’re hungry!” and “like it or not, Preval must go!” As the morning wore on, a few extra shouts of “go back to your country, blan” were sprinkled in for our benefit. Somebody cupped my ear with a metal bowl and clanged on it with a wooden spoon.

Just after noon, the city cracked. A fresh batch of burning tires blackened the sky. Chairs bounced off storefronts, then started going through windows. I stood behind a car door in the commercial district known as La Ville as one group of marchers pitched rocks at us and danced to music from a carnival speaker truck leading them along their route.

By late afternoon the streets were filled with looters and university students who smashed traffic lights, burned cars, pushed down photographers and dared the police, who occasionally obliged, to shoot them.

Over the next three days, we would watch protesters smash down the gate of the national palace with a Dumpster, a mob try to drag a female driver out the window of her car, and dozens of gas stations, cell phone stores and the offices of Air France reduced to fields of broken glass and debris while the police stood by helplessly.

The looting and burning were often worse in the upscale areas where we and most other foreigners live; at night, we listened to sustained machine gun fire from the porch. While U.N. soldiers guarded the national prison, palace and telecom buildings, all authority in the streets went into in the hands of teenage and twenty-something men wielding rocks and demanding our credentials at checkpoints made of burning tires, overturned cars and all-too-easily found piles of rotting garbage.

Preval waited until the third day of rioting in the capital and a week after the tumult began in Les Cayes to address the nation on television and radio. Pausing occasionally for the pop of an exploding tear gas canister, he begged the looters to stop, telling them that burning and breaking everything would only discourage foreign investment and make their problems worse. He blamed the misery of the rising prices on Haiti’s dependence on imported food — 80 percent of the rice this country eats is shipped in from overseas, much of it from Arkansas-based Riceland Foods.

Without a whiff of contradiction, he also promised to help lower prices on imports.

When it was over the following weekend, there were at least five Haitian men dead in Les Cayes and a slain teenager in a Port-au-Prince slum; a U.N. policeman from Nigeria had been dragged from his car and executed in a clothing market. Families who had been merely struggling to feed themselves before the riots were desperate during, out of food and money but unable to work and afraid to leave their homes.

Preval succeeded in pressuring the importers and announced about a 15 percent price cut per bag of rice, paid for by international aid and the importers themselves, but just minutes after his announcement the Senate voted to fire his prime minister and the entire cabinet. The window of opportunity may not have slammed shut, but it was closing fast.

International aid groups and local officials say that Haiti must again start producing its own food and providing better price protection for itself. But the stacks of rice in American-flag stamped bags didn’t wash up on its shores by themselves — they are the product of years of free-trade agreements, bottomed-out tariffs and the slow death of Haitian farms. Preval, who echoed the calls for national strength while subsidizing imported food, nominated a longtime veteran of the Inter-American Development Bank to be his next prime minister.

Many Haitians insist they protested peacefully, and many in fact did. Blame for the violence has been thrown at drug cartels, right-wing senators who led the charge against the prime minister, Aristide, his lieutenants, the international community and even Preval himself. But in the end, those hidden hands may be irrelevant. As one Preval adviser put it in the riot’s early stages, Haiti was a bucket of gasoline surrounded by people holding matches.

That’s something to keep in mind for a world full of fire starters, as the gasoline continues to spread.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Jonathan M. Katz
Jonathan M. Katz, the Associated Press correspondent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, previously reported for AP in the Dominican Republic, Washington and Jerusalem. He has also covered the U.S. Congress for Congressional Quarterly and the Pentagon as a graduate student, written for Slate and commentated for BBC Radio.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 23 • 10:00 AM

The International Surrogacy Market

In Bangalore, where many women earn just $150 a month working in garment factories, surrogate mothers can make thousands of dollars by carrying others’ babies to term. But at what cost?


September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.