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Haiti's prime minister fired amid food crisis

April 13, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Haitian lawmakers fired the Caribbean nation's prime minister Saturday, and a U.N. peacekeeper was killed in a vigilante attack in volatile Port-au-Prince, the sixth death in more than a week of rioting over soaring food prices.

The lawmakers' decision to sack Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, who had headed the government since President Rene Preval was elected in February 2006, was meted out as censure over the violence and tension that has gripped the Western hemisphere's poorest people for the last 10 days.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 176 words Type of Material: Correction
Haiti: An April 13 article in Section A about the ouster of Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis incorrectly reported earlier observations by President Rene Preval about his exiled predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It reported Preval as having said that Aristide could be subject to arrest if he returned to Haiti because of pending criminal charges against him in Miami alleging corruption and instigating violence. The allegations were not criminal but part of a civil complaint brought by the interim government of Haiti against Aristide in U.S. District Court in southern Florida in November 2005. The case never went to trial and was dismissed in July 2006. What Preval did say in 2006 is that Aristide had to find out whether there was any legal complaint against him before returning to Haiti. The story also incorrectly described the detention of Aristide ally Gerard Jean-Juste on suspicion of complicity in murder as having been more than a year at the government villa. His time in detention was eight months, and the first few months were at the national penitentiary.

A Nigerian riot control officer with the 9,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force was shot and killed in the capital after he was accosted while running an errand. Neither the victim nor other peacekeepers fired weapons during the attack, said U.N. spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe.

Alexis was a close ally of the president, and his removal by the Senate during a Saturday session in Port-au-Prince signaled censure of Preval as well. Protesters had stormed the National Palace on Tuesday to demand that the president resign. By sacrificing Alexis instead of Preval, the political opposition may have shown its willingness to compromise.

"I think that will satisfy the people," opposition lawmaker Yuri Latortue said after Alexis' ouster.

Food costs have shot up 40% in the last year because of the global rise in the price of fuel for crop planting, tending, harvesting and transportation. Most of Haiti's 8.5 million citizens live on less than $2 a day and are dependent on imports and humanitarian aid for rice and other staples.

Before Alexis' firing and the attack on the U.N. police officer, Preval had announced plans to subsidize rice for Haitians, dropping the price for a 50-pound sack to $43 from $51. International aid in the form of a $10-million emergency grant from the World Bank and pledges from Haiti's small-business community should shave $3 more from the cost.

Even donated food supplies have failed to make their way to Haiti's neediest citizens lately because of a government crackdown on corruption at ports and customs offices. Entire shipping containers of beans, vegetables and other foods have spoiled or been infested by rats and insects while sitting in ports for months awaiting government inspection.

Preval, an agronomist by training and a successful agricultural entrepreneur before he was lured out of retirement to run for the presidency again, appealed for calm and unity Thursday in an address to the nation that appeared to tamp down the worst of the violence. Five people were killed last week when mobs looted food warehouses and attacked aid distribution sites.

The campaign against Preval, who was also president from 1996 to 2001, has reportedly been abetted by political radicals who have returned to Haiti after years in exile.

Haiti had been relatively calm since Preval and Alexis took over from a U.S.-backed interim government in the spring of 2006, two years after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled an armed rebellion and left the slum gangs he armed and incited to turn on one another.

Aristide supporters, though dwindling in number over his four-year absence, have continued to agitate for his return from exile in South Africa. Preval has observed that any Haitian has the right to return to his homeland but also noted that criminal charges filed in Miami against Aristide alleging corruption and instigating violence could make him subject to arrest upon return.

After the Senate meeting, in which 16 of 27 lawmakers voted to oust Alexis, about two dozen Aristide supporters rallied outside Parliament, chanting, "Aristide or death!"

Activist priest Gerard Jean-Juste has been seen leading protesters in the seething slums of the capital, stirring concern that political agitators have been taking advantage of the food crisis to undermine Preval's efforts to stabilize the country and defuse gang violence.

Jean-Juste, who tried to run against Preval two years ago but was disqualified because he was in jail at the time, was detained at a government villa for more than a year. Just before the election, he was expelled to Miami, where he has had a residence and ministry for two decades.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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