By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 11 (Reuters) - Haiti’s fragile government appeared in trouble on Friday after a week of nationwide unrest over skyrocketing food prices as opposition senators planned to fire the prime minister.
Leaders of a group of 16 senators who set a deadline for Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis to step down said they scheduled a hearing in the Senate for Saturday for a no-confidence vote. Analysts say a vote against Alexis would be a blow to President Rene Preval but not a crushing one.
"Our decision is made. We have the constitutional prerogative to fire the prime minister and we have decided to do so to preserve the country’s stability," Sen. Gabriel Fortune said. Senators blame the government for not doing enough to counter the rise in the cost of living.
At least five people were killed in protests that began on April 2 in the impoverished Caribbean country and pitted U.N. peacekeepers against crowds of Haitians angry over the rising cost of staples like rice, beans, corn and cooking oil.
Whether the violence was spontaneous or fueled by opponents of the government, members of the elite who have lost privileges or drug smugglers who use Haiti as a stepping stone to the United States is a matter of fierce debate in Haiti.
The unrest is Haiti’s worst since the election of Preval two years ago brought a measure of stability to a country wracked by decades of dictatorship, military rule, political upheaval and gang violence.
Sixteen members of Haiti’s 30-seat Senate would have to vote no-confidence in Alexis to oust him. Three of the seats are unoccupied.
A group of 16 opposition senators signed a letter this week calling on Alexis to resign and its leaders said all were prepared to vote against him. A letter calling him before parliament on Saturday was sent on Friday, they said.
"We are not going to accept any delays," Sen. Rudy Herivaux said. "If the prime minister fails to appear tomorrow, we will give him a vote of no-confidence in his absence because the situation is grave."
FORCED TO REPLACE PRIME MINISTER
His ouster would force Preval into a long process to replace both Alexis and his Cabinet.
Robert Rotberg, adjunct professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said a no-confidence vote would be a serious blow to Preval but was unlikely to persuade him to resign.
Ironically, this was only happening because Preval had opened up democracy in Haiti to a far greater extent than before and given the legislature its own voice, he said.
"In that sense, it’s an enormously good thing for Haiti," Rotberg said.
One of 10 senators with Preval’s Lespwa party said those opposed to Alexis had decided to plunge the country of 9 million "into further chaos.
"This is not the moment because on April 25 he is presiding over an important meeting with international donors to collect about $4 billion to fund the strategic plan for economic growth and poverty reduction," Sen. Jean Hector Anacacis said.
In the capital on Friday, long, unruly lines formed at gas stations that had been closed for days because of the unrest.
Streets were being cleared of rocks, the charred shells of wrecked cars, tires and other debris used to build barricades during days of looting and protests over prices for food that have in some cases doubled in the past two months.
Haitians, who mostly earn less than $2 a day and live in utter poverty, complain they are not able to feed their families and the World Food Program has issued an emergency appeal for $500 million to provide for the world’s poor.
High fuel prices, rising demand in Asia, the use of crops for biofuels and other factors such as market speculation have pushed up food prices worldwide.
"Whether Alexis should resign or not, he will decide," said Jean Panel, 38, a Port-au-Prince businessman. "But if he tries to resist, things could get violent in the future."
A Brazilian air force cargo plane headed to Haiti on Friday carrying 14 tonnes of food, the air force said in a statement.
Brazil has donated nearly 7,000 tonnes of beans, 4,050 tonnes of sugar and 3 million tins of cooking oil. (Writing by Jim Loney; Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Editing by Michael Christie and Peter Cooney)