Haiti’s unions call strike to protest fuel hikes  By Michael Deibert
 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Eleven of Haiti’s largest transportation unions called on Monday for a general strike to protest the spiraling cost of gasoline and other fuel in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
 The one-day strike was set for Tuesday, transport union leaders told a news conference in Port-au-Prince.
 Gasoline prices in Haiti have risen 85 percent to 90 percent since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government ended long-standing fuel subsidies at the end of 2002, with prices now averaging about $2.24 a gallon.
 “The Haitian Labor Movement has reached a decisive crossroads, and a decision must be made,” said Denise Almeuse, speaking for the umbrella organization known by its French name, Mouvement Syndical Haitien. “We are announcing a general strike for tomorrow, January 7, to force the government to withdrawal the price increases we have witnessed since January 1st.”
 “We are also asking for all taxis, general transport and private vehicles to stay at home tomorrow between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” union leader Fleurant Ancelot said.
 Government officials said a budget deficit of nearly $80 million and increasing oil prices on the world oil market — some caused by an opposition strike that has choked oil exports from Haiti’s main supplier, Venezuela — had made it untenable to continue the fuel subsidies.
 The decision was also partly in response to a demand from the International Monetary Fund that fuel subsidies be halted before the disbursement of a $50 million dollar loan. The loan is part of over $500 million of international aid withheld since Haiti’s disputed parliamentary elections in May 2000. 

   Union leaders said that unless the government rolled back fuel prices on Tuesday, they would call for a march in the capital on Friday.
 Spiraling prices for gasoline, diesel and kerosene have affected all aspects of daily life in the nation of 8 million. Collective taxis and buses have been forced to pass on the price increases to cash-strapped passengers, and fancy pastry shops in the affluent suburb of Petionville display empty shelves due to lack of refrigeration.
 “Ten, but the fare was seven gourdes!” — or about 40 cents —  said a woman in downtown Port-au-Prince as she exited driver Francois Jean’s taxi cab, an aging Datsun that held three people in the back seat and two in the front.      

“Gas is too expensive now, I have no choice but to charge more or my wife and children will go hungry. I don’t know why gas costs so much right now, but it’s making life very hard,” Jean said as he took her money.
 Tuesday’s proposed strike would be the second against the Aristide government in as many months.       Many of the nation’s merchants closed their doors on Dec. 4 to protest the beating by government partisans of anti-government protesters in the capital. At least 15 people were injured.

       Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was elected president in 1990 but ousted in a coup months later. U.S. troops helped restore him to power in 1994 and he was elected to a second term in November 2000.
 His government has been mired in a dispute over the May 2000 parliamentary elections, which observers charge were rigged to favor Aristide’s Lavalas Family political party.

 In recent months, Aristide has faced a wave of protests and strikes against what opposition politicians and other critics allege are increasingly repressive and corrupt tactics.  Anti-government protesters have been attacked by pro-government mobs, and bands of ex-soldiers from the Haitian army, disbanded by Aristide in 1994, have launched sporadic attacks against government police in the countryside.

 The Aristide government has recently called for new elections to be held to resolve the crisis. “It is not realistic to talk about elections until a climate of security exists in the country that enables political parties to operate freely and the mechanisms of the election to operate,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, as he departed Haiti after a fact-finding mission on Monday.