Haitian protesters trade food riots for jobs

LES CAYES, Haiti Wed May 14, 2008 12:01am BST

A pregnant woman sells mangos at the slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince May 9, 2008. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A pregnant woman sells mangos at the slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince May 9, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

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LES CAYES, Haiti (Reuters) - The demonstrators who ignited last month's violent protests against rising food prices in Haiti have accepted U.S.-sponsored jobs rather than follow through on a threat to launch new riots in the impoverished Caribbean country.

The protesters in Les Cayes, a southern city where five people were killed in clashes with U.N. peacekeepers in April, had vowed to take to the streets again by Monday if parliament failed to ratify a new prime minister to replace Jacques Edouard Alexis, who was fired by the Senate on April 12.

With shovels and rakes in hand as they cleaned dusty streets and drainage ditches in a sprawling Les Cayes slum on Tuesday, protest leaders said they had entered into a shaky truce with the government but warned that violence could erupt again soon.

"We want housing, government-sponsored community restaurants and stores, professional schools and health centres," said one, a man of about 20 who gave his name only as Charles.

"The situation has not changed yet," he added, saying the temporary jobs handed out by the mayor's office and bankrolled by the U.S. Agency for International Development, had fallen far short of the protesters' demands and would only buy peace for a short period of time.

Only 40 protesters have been hired as street cleaners. But their wages of about $4 (2.06 pounds) per day are more than double the daily average wage in the poorest country in the Americas.

"They try to buy us off when they distribute food and create a few jobs ... but this will not solve the problems. We'll take to the streets again as long as our demands are not met," said Charlemagne Bien-Aime.

The protest leaders, who gather regularly in a tree-shaded cemetery in the La Savane slum, said on May 5 that Haiti's lawmakers and President Rene Preval had one week to install a new prime minister to start addressing their demands.

One of their main issues is the cost of rice, beans and other staples in Haiti, which have more than doubled over the past few months.

But the lower house of parliament rejected Preval's nominee to succeed Alexis in a surprise vote on Monday, a move backed by Alexis supporters. The rejection undercut Preval's efforts to establish a stable democracy in a country wracked by decades of political upheaval and brutal dictatorship.

SITUATION SEEN AS FRAGILE

Les Cayes Mayor Yvon Chery said the situation in the town has been defused at least temporarily by the jobs program but acknowledged that violent protests could erupt again.

"The situation is very fragile," he told Reuters. "The government needs to pay more attention and also provide more means to help address the problems."

The Les Cayes protests spread quickly to other cities including Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, as tens of thousands of demonstrators joined in riots and looting.

Preval, who marks the start of his third year in office on Wednesday, has come under fire for what many see as his lack of speedy solutions to hunger and Haiti's ferocious poverty.

"Lespwa means absolute desperation," said Jim Jacques, who gathered amid the tombstones in La Savane's cemetery on Tuesday to speak his piece. He was referring to Preval's political movement, Lespwa, which takes its name from the Creole word for "Hope."

Preval first served as president from 1996 to 2001 and is the only democratically elected Haitian leader to serve out a full term and successfully hand over power to another elected leader.

He has said that the food crisis in Haiti, as in other poor countries where the problem escapes local government control, stems from high global energy prices, surging demand for basic commodities in Asia and the diversion of some crops for increasing biofuel production.

(Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman)

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