Haiti Riots Over Spike in Food Prices In Haiti, a drastic increase in food prices sparked deadly rioting over the last three days. Protesters in the capitol are calling for President Rene Preval to step down. NPR's Tony Cox talks with NBC News' Mara Schiavocampo.
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Haiti Riots Over Spike in Food Prices

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Haiti Riots Over Spike in Food Prices

Haiti Riots Over Spike in Food Prices

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TONY COX, host:

And now to Haiti, where things are settling down after three days of rioting in the capital, Port-au-Prince. A huge rise in food prices drove thousands of protesters and looters to riot earlier this week. U.N. troops moved in to protect parts of the capital. Meanwhile, President Rene Preval has begged for calm. Haiti is considered to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the unrest over a crippled economy may not be easy to squelch. Mara Schiavocampo is in Port-au-Prince right now. She is a digital correspondent for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Mara, welcome to the show.

Ms. MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO (Digital correspondent, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams): Thank you for having me, Tony.

COX: You've been in the streets reporting on the story. What have you seen in terms of tension and unrest there?

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Today, things are good. Public transportation is running. People are out doing their business, shopping. We went out, no roadblocks, no trouble at all. I can't say the same for the last few days. Yesterday was manageable. There were a few roadblocks, car fires, things like that, but it felt like the fire was dying down, so to speak. The last few days before that, things were very tense. Just coming in from the airport, we hit about a dozen roadblocks, burning tires, dumpsters, trash, with mobs of people that would come around the car.

Our cameraman was sitting in the front with the window rolled down, and a man approached him with a huge stone - a stone he had to hold with both hands and was going to hit him with it, and our driver had to talk to out of it. So it was very tense earlier, and I imagine it was like that in other parts of the country as well.

COX: High food prices have become a global issue, but it seems worse in Haiti. Why is that?

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Because it's such a poor country. As you mentioned in your intro, it's the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. 80 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. So when you have food prices that increase 50 percent in one year, that's going to be felt a lot more by people who are already really poor. This is a crisis of food affordability, not availability. It's not that the food isn't here, it's that people can't afford it. Here, it's not that they're broke - they can't eat because they have no reserves to go to. They have no discretionary income, so this is really a matter of survival for them.

COX: What is the government proposing to fix the problem?

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Well, the thing is, is that the people were pretty clear about what they wanted to hear from the government. They wanted some government reshuffling. Some people were calling for Preval's resignation. Other people wanted to have the Prime Minister. And people wanted to see, most importantly, an immediate reduction on food prices - something that, maybe for the next three months, prices would be cut. I mean, they wanted to see a difference right away, and they got neither.

The president made a speech asking for calm. He obviously didn't step down. He didn't make any big changes in the government. He offered food subsidies for farmers, which, you know, I guess will help in the future, but it's not an immediate affect, especially, it's not going to be felt immediately by the people in the street. And so, we'll see what happens with that because I think people are hopeful that more change is coming. And so, perhaps the public is calmed a little bit.

COX: What about the possibility of an exodus towards the United States? I know that the U.S. Coast Guard is already on alert.

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: They are, yeah. There are reports that the Coast Guard is looking for people and thinking that perhaps they'll have more interdictions because of what's happening here. But you have to remember that what's happened in the last week has been people expressing their anger over an existing situation. The situation hasn't gotten worse for them. They just got fed up enough from it that they decided to take to the streets. So, so far the coast guard hasn't seen any increase in people that are leaving Haiti. They're just being cautious about it.

COX: To follow that point, Mara, many of the capital city's roadblocks that you've already indicated have been removed. And apparently, life, as you say, is beginning to get somewhat back to normal, at least compared to what it was like just a few days ago. But protestors have warned that if food prices do not come down, there could be more trouble. And estimates are that food costs are, in fact, not likely to drop soon. Is there a sense there that there's more unrest to come?

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Yes. It would not be surprising to anyone if this were to flare up again. You get the sense that the country, the people, everyone's kind of holding their breath to see what's going to happen. This weekend, there's very important political events that are happening. There are senators who are calling for a no confidence vote on the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, his lifeline is very short at this point. So maybe if he's replaced, it will buy the government some time to say to people look, we're doing things, and we're making moves and changes so that people will settle down a bit.

But if they get the sense that nothing is being done and their lives have not changed, they're going to be back to square one, and you get the sense that this is a very fragile calm.

COX: Is there a sense there that the problem from the Haitians who you've spoken to, is this across the board, or is it just the poorest people in Haiti, and that there are some people there that are having no trouble buying and acquiring food, or is it almost everyone?

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Well, here's the thing. The statistic is that 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and that more than half of the population lives in abject poverty, which means they're living on less than one dollar a day. And the vast majority of the people here are being affected by this. I met people yesterday who subsist on cookies made of dirt - dirt, butter, water, and salt, because it's the cheapest thing that they can eat. I met a man who's eating 25 of them a day, and you see these, quote/unquote, "cookies", they look like ceramic plates - they're like clay.

So you cannot exaggerate how bad things are for the people here. But once that genuine, kind of, grassroots movement started and people got to the streets and started asking for political change, then you have a lot of people with other motivations coming on board. You have drug smugglers who don't like some of the new restrictions that are being placed on commerce right now. You have Aristide supporters who want to see him come back in the country. The ones that started from that genuine spark of the people's trouble, then you have other groups who are taking advantage of it and coming onboard who want to spread the flames so that they can have their political needs met as well. So at this point, it's a little bit of a mish mash.

COX: Mara Schiavocampo is a digital correspondent for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. She joined me from her hotel room in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Mara, thank you very much.

Ms. SCHIAVOCAMPO: Thanks, Tony.

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