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.