Jake Price/SIPA Press, for The New York Times

Sacks of rice for sale in a market in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. The price of rice, a major staple in Haiti, has risen sharply in recent months.


Published: June 1, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – One lesson of life in Haiti is never to say things cannot get any worse. They can, and they have.

People say they have had less money, less food and less hope since the February revolt that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For most Haitians, this has nothing to do with last week’s deadly floods, which left 1,000 dead and 1,600 missing in Haiti, according to the official government estimate on Monday.

It has to do with the price of rice.

The cost of living has soared in the past four months. And as they say in Haiti, “Rice is life.”

On the Rue de Miracles, one of the capital’s biggest sidewalk markets, where thousands buy and sell the necessities of life, people talk of little else. Every conversation that starts with politics ends with the price of rice.

Many Haitians eat one meal a day. The main course is rice, and the price of a 110-pound sack doubled, to $45 from $22.50, between late January and early May. That price has dropped to about $37 in the past few weeks but is still too high, said Clermathe Baron, 29, who sells the big white sacks across the street from the Haitian customs office near the port. The price was driven up by global, national, political and economic forces.

“Life for the people of Haiti was better under Aristide because rice was less expensive,” said Ms. Baron, not a big fan of the former president, as an American military helicopter hummed overhead.

“Even though it’s more expensive now, I make the same as I did before,” she said. “These high prices are not to my advantage. They’re not to anyone’s advantage, except maybe a few big importers and a few people in the Customs House. They always seem to have money.”

People who buy rice by the pound say the price also doubled, and it has stayed that high.

“We have less and less to eat,” said Nadia Casmir, 21, who sells crackers, cookies and powdered milk from a sidewalk stall, and lives with her mother, aunt, and the aunt’s three children. “Things were better before. I’m not making a living. I’ve had to raise my prices, but people have less money, so they can’t buy what we are selling.”

Mr. Aristide, unsurprisingly, agrees that things have gotten worse since he was overthrown Feb. 29.

“The level of suffering has dramatically increased in Haiti,” he said to reporters before leaving Jamaica and arriving Monday in South Africa, which offered him refuge. Mr. Aristide, who says he is still Haiti’s elected leader, received a head of state’s welcome in Johannesburg from President Thabo Mbeki.

But Haitian businessmen say Mr. Aristide’s government kept the price of rice down through corruption.

One leading importer said an Aristide crony received a near exclusive concession on rice imports and evaded customs duties. That evasion allowed the rice concessionaire to cut about $3 a bag off the market price, pass some of the savings on to the market and pocket the rest.

“It was kind of a monopoly” under Mr. Aristide, said Danielle St.-Lot, the new minister of commerce.

Haiti used to grow its own rice. But its agriculture has collapsed in the past two decades, crushed by poverty, environmental destruction and foreign imports. While rice production crashed, demand soared: Haiti’s population has grown to eight million from five million in 20 years. “The deterioration of the economy, years of bad governance without any policy for agriculture, and the day-to-day problems of life we now see reflected in the price of rice,” Ms. St.-Lot said.

Eighty percent of the rice imported by Haiti comes from the United States, chiefly Arkansas, Louisiana and California – more than 300,000 tons in 2003. American rice is the most expensive in the world, Ms. St.-Lot said. “The problem is serious,” she said. “The price on the international market is growing every day.”

American and global stocks of rice are down, driving prices up, in some part because of American military and foreign policies.

“The American government has been buying a lot of rice for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Jean-Michel Cherubin, a leading Haitian importer of rice, sugar and beans.

International aid agencies, like the United Nations World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services, which receive United States government support, do what they can to ease Haiti’s hunger. The United Nations sought $35 million in emergency funds for Haiti from foreign governments in March; it remains $26 million shy of the goal.

Things were bad before the flood, and now at least 75,000 survivors of the deluge face a food emergency that will last for many months.

Haiti – its ports in particular – is a dangerous place to do business. That remains true despite the soon-to-depart American-led military force sent to provide security and stability after Mr. Aristide fell, and despite the efforts of the interim government, which has good intentions but almost no money. Theft and crime raise the market price of rice by cutting the supply lines.

“People have been stealing rice and selling it in the market here in La Saline,” said Capt. Sean Connally of the Marines, part of a force sent to secure the harbor of Port-au-Prince, which abuts La Saline, one of Haiti’s roughest neighborhoods. Four cargo containers were looted Monday morning, Haitian officials said.

That has gone on since the day Mr. Aristide fell. “There was lots of looting of commercial warehouses where rice was stocked,” said Jean-Claude Paulvin, president of the Haitian Economists association. “Boats couldn’t come into the port to deliver the rice.”

The damage done to businesses, warehouses and commercial property during the anti-Aristide rebellion ran to tens of millions of dollars.

Haiti’s police force, whose cars and weapons were stolen during the chaos after Mr. Aristide’s departure, now has roughly 2,500 officers. The government lacks money to rebuild the force or secure the ports.

Starting June 1, security will be handed over from the American-led force to a United Nations coalition whose soldiers have barely started arriving. A formal transfer of command is set for June 20; the last American soldier is to leave June 30.

It all weighs heavily on Ms. Baron, the rice seller, and her customers.

“Because of the political situation, I pay more for everything, for all the necessities of life, including rice,” she said. “Life’s not better for me. It’s worse now. It’s not good for us poor people. The little money we have is not enough to fight the forces of commerce.”

Michael Wines contributed reporting from Johannesburg for this article.