By Tom Brown
CITE SOLEIL, Haiti, May 11 (Reuters) - It is a measure of success for President Rene Preval that calm prevailed in Haiti’s largest and most violent slum during recent food riots in the Caribbean nation.
The pacification of Cite Soleil, a teeming warren of shanties south of Haiti’s capital with sufficient size and guns to undermine governments, is one of the few concrete achievements of Preval, who starts his third year in office this week.
Residents offer scant praise for the 65-year-old president. Some suggest that peace in a place so crowded that some families sleep in shifts is more like the quiet of a graveyard than a sign of hope in one of the poorest places in the poorest country in the Americas.
"Many people just don’t have the energy to take to the streets and demonstrate here the way they used to," said Sergo Pierre, a Cite Soleil shop owner.
"Nobody’s really helping the people of Cite Soleil," he said. "The people in Cite Soleil are doomed."
Soon after taking office in May 2006, Preval authorized the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti to launch a crackdown on the notorious armed gangs of Cite Soleil, whose leaders were mostly loyal to ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and who ruled their domains like warlords.
The gang leaders have since been arrested or fled but community activists say the government has failed to fill the power vacuum left behind.
And unlike Aristide, who remains immensely popular in Cite Soleil, Preval is no longer seen as a champion of the poor who swept him to office. His government has been buoyed by international aid but is widely seen as slow to address the needs of people like those in Cite Soleil who scrape by on less than $2 a day.
Ferocious poverty in Haiti means a recent surge in food prices cut deep. The prime minister was forced out of office last month after food riots resulted in six deaths.
A number of poor countries have been rattled by violence over rising food prices blamed on growing demand in Asia, the use of crops for biofuel, record oil prices and speculation.
Unrest in Haiti could erupt again at any moment, posing new challenges to Preval’s efforts to establish a stable democracy in a country that has suffered upheaval and dictatorship since it threw off French rule more than 200 years ago.
There is some hope for change under Ericq Pierre, the former Inter-American Development adviser expected to be sworn in as prime minister this week. But change has never come easily amid the deep divides separating Haiti’s tiny elite from its impoverished masses.
"This is not a hands-on, hard-charging manager," Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said of Preval. "He does have leadership capabilities but in a country like Haiti where you really need to knock heads together to get anything done it’s a big question whether Preval is up to the task."
Preval’s initial reaction to the food riots in early April was: "Poze," meaning "cool down" or "chill" in Creole.
His words offered little solace to people like Marie Joseph, an emaciated mother of six who lay resting in an abandoned storefront in Cite Soleil at midday on Friday.
"We’re dying of misery and hunger here," said Joseph, 44. "I haven’t seen any improvement."
"Things got better without the gangs," said Magalie Jean-Noel, a former school nurse unemployed since she was crippled in a skirmish between gangs and U.N. troops in September 2005.
"People are no longer running for their lives all the time, but the situation of misery and hunger is still here."
Few seem to think Preval will be ousted, like so many other elected Haitian leaders have been, before his term ends in 2011. He became the only leader to win a democratic election, serve a full term and peacefully hand over power when he first served as president from 1996 through 2001.
But underscoring the fragility of his government, national security commission head Patrick Elie said Preval could easily have been toppled by protesters who sought to storm the national palace last month.
The only thing preventing that was the U.N. peacekeeping force, said Elie. (Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Michael Christie and Alan Elsner)