April 8, 2008 / 7:06 PM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW-Haiti not descending into instability - minister

By Michael Christie

MIAMI, April 8 (Reuters) - Violent protests against soaring food prices are not going to tip Haiti back into the political instability that has haunted it for decades, the Caribbean country's finance minister said on Tuesday.

Finance Minister Daniel Dorsainvil said that while the government of the impoverished nation was concerned about high food and energy prices, it had programs in place to boost agriculture and create jobs that would generate income and help its people cope with the cost of living.

"That is not my reading," Dorsainvil told Reuters in an interview in Miami when asked if the angry mobs storming through the capital Port-au-Prince on Tuesday threatened Haiti's stability.

"I think we have made great progress and we'll continue to make great progress," the minister said on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Five people have been killed in a week of demonstrations over high food prices in the poorest country in the Americas. A man died in gunfire on Monday and four others were killed during a riot last week in Les Cayes, when an angry mob looted a food warehouse and attacked U.N. peacekeepers.

The protests escalated on Tuesday when crowds erected flaming barricades and threw rocks at police in the streets of Port-au-Prince. U.N. peacekeepers fired rubber bullets to prevent demonstrators from storming the presidential palace.

The United Nations says it is concerned the unrest could destabilize the relative peace that Haiti has enjoyed since the election of President Rene Preval in 2006.

In response, Preval's government has announced a multimillion-dollar package of economic investments aimed at lowering the cost of living.

Dorsainvil said he had spoken to his cabinet colleagues and been assured the money needed was available.

LONG-TERM ISSUE

Programs were already in place to distribute school lunches, develop the country's struggling farms and build labor-intensive infrastructure, and would be boosted, he said.

"We need to put a focus on income-generating projects," he said, adding that Haiti had to ensure stability to attract foreign investment.

"In addition of course we are turning to our partners to make additional resources available," Dorsainvil said, mentioning the IADB, the World Bank and donor nations.

High food and energy costs were clearly going to be a long-term issue, he said.

In a speech to the IADB, Dorsainvil said high food prices and energy costs had pushed inflation in Haiti above 10 percent compared with 8 percent at the end of last year.

Prices in Haiti for some items, such as rice, have doubled in the last six months as drought in grains-producer Australia, rising demand in emerging markets like China and competition with biofuels pushes up world food costs.

"Rising prices are clearly a source of great concern for the government, and the Haitian people, like those of other countries in the region, are facing great hardship," Dorsainvil said.

He said the government's strategy of investing money in agriculture and infrastructure would be examined, and its financing agreed to, at a donors meeting on April 25 in Haiti. (Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech) (For more stories on global food price rises, please see here)




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