PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian President Rene Preval told demonstrators to “cool it” on Wednesday as he sought to end days of violent protests over soaring food prices in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
His appeal, in a national address, brought an uneasy calm to Haiti a day after protesters paralyzed the capital and tried to storm the presidential palace to demand government action over the cost of food.
Some in the poorest country in the Americas warned that unrest could erupt again at any moment.
“To those who are stirring up violence, I order you to stop because it is not going to solve the problem,” Preval said.
“Poze,” said Preval, telling protesters in Creole to “cool it” in a recorded message from the National Palace, which was protected by barbed wire and U.N. peacekeeping troops backed by trucks and armored personnel carriers.
Preval outlined possible subsidies to increase domestic production of staples like rice and other foodstuffs.
His speech came after at least five people were killed during a week of violence triggered by skyrocketing food prices in Haiti, where 80 percent of the population makes do on less than $2 a day and few have full-time jobs.
A combination of high fuel prices, rising demand for food in Asia, the use of farmland and crops for biofuels, bad weather and speculation on futures markets have pushed up food prices worldwide.
There have been violent outbursts in several poor countries as well as Haiti.
Small groups of protesters returned to the streets of Port-au-Prince early to rebuild barricades taken down by police overnight. Columns of thick black smoke rose from parts of the sprawling city as demonstrators set fire to piles of tires.
There were sporadic reports of looting in some areas and many roads were impassable due to the unrest.
The city’s teeming Streets seemed to empty soon after Preval’s address. Barricades were cleared and police and U.N. peacekeepers patrolled silently in many areas.
Small groups of defiant demonstrators, still idling about in some areas after Preval spoke, said he offered no immediate solution to the food crisis and people’s gnawing hunger.
“President Preval spoke like an observer,” said Joasil Monfort, who took part in protests near the presidential palace. “What we want him to do is take action to lower the cost of living,” he said.
“I think the mobilization (protests) should continue because the president didn’t give any direct answer to the urgent situation we’re facing now, which is the hunger. It’s not in two or three or six months, it’s now,” said Joseph Tessa, another protester.
“The president is right but I‘m not satisfied because I will already have died of hunger if I have to follow his proposal,” said a third man, Max Abner. “If there’s another demonstration tomorrow I’ll be there.”
Despite such threats, Preval said his cash-strapped government could ill-afford to bow to demands that it lift all taxes on food imports.
The government earlier announced a multimillion-dollar package of investments in agriculture and infrastructure to create jobs and boost food production.
“Instead of subsidizing the price of food products coming from abroad, we’d rather subsidize national production. I propose that the price of fertilizer be subsidized by 50 percent and even more,” Preval said.
“It’s not with violence and with easy economic decisions that we will solve the problem of the high cost of living. It is by supporting national production.”
U.N. peacekeepers have been stationed in Haiti since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004. Preval’s election in 2006 raised hopes that Haiti might finally tread a path toward stability after decades of violence and turmoil in the nation of 9 million people.
(Writing by Tom Brown; editing by Chris Wilson)
For more stories on global food price rises, please see here