‘Miami Rice’ Sparks Lawlessness in Rural Haiti : Government Mostly Ignores Unrest Stemming From Widespread Smuggling

The Washington Post

In the heat of the night, more than 100 men with machetes, picks and clubs milled about a makeshift roadblock of tree branches and rusty machinery. Traffic backed up as they swarmed around trucks and buses. Amid angry shouting in Creole, the words “Miami rice! Miami rice!” echoed through the darkness.

Along the national highway between the bleak and dusty port of Gonaives and the rice-growing Artibonite Valley, a small civil war has broken out over the smuggling of American rice. For three months, Artibonite peasants have built barricades, attacking trucks of imported rice and spilling it on the highway.

Now, Gonaives dockworkers have struck back with roadblocks to stop locally grown rice from reaching northern provinces. A Gonaives man was hacked to death at L’Estere on Nov. 29 when hundreds of angry Gonaives residents stormed the Artibonite barricade. In revenge, roving gangs ransacked 150 houses belonging to Artibonite peasants in Gonaives and raped several women.


Lawlessness More Common

Ten months after the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship, large areas of the Haitian countryside, where 80% of the population lives, are disintegrating into lawlessness.

The provisional military government of President Henri Namphy, left without a provincial police force after the disbanding of the Duvaliers’ secret police and faced with uprisings over several civilians killed by soldiers during recent demonstrations, has mostly ignored the unrest.

“But we’re at the end of our rope,” said Justice Minister Francois Latortue, whose name--which translates as “the tortoise”--has become a Haitian joke. “We are going to have to take some measures. Things are getting out of hand all around the country.”

The rising anger and disorder grow out of dashed hopes. After 30 years of dictatorship, the impoverished Haitians, with a 60% unemployment rate and an annual per capita income of about $300, expected rapid change. But the new government, disorganized, inexperienced and broke after the Duvaliers reportedly raided the treasury, has been slow in raising the standard of living.

Hospital Closing

Near Dessalines, southwest of here, the Schweitzer Hospital announced recently that it will close because the government has been unable to protect it from a small band of angry peasants demanding jobs and land since the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February.

“The threats have been continuing, and the lives of our doctors are in danger,” said Roland Mercier, a spokesman for the hospital, which serves 76,000 patients a year and employs 300 people. “I personally went to see the minister of public health, and so far the government has made no investigation.”


In Jeremie, a southwestern town eight hours by jeep from the capital, Roman Catholic Bishop Willie Romelus has called for the overthrow of the government, warning of a “civil war.”

Schools Were Closed

Schools have been closed in Jeremie for weeks. Protesters forced the closing of public offices, beat up the prefect who represents the central government, demanded the resignation of all local officials and called on the population to withhold their taxes.

The “Miami rice”--so called because it arrives in sacks stamped “Miami, Fla.” with the name of the exporter--began to arrive illegally through Gonaives and other ports more than three months ago. American rice, subsidized by the U.S. government, has undersold locally grown rice, causing it to drop in price by almost a third.

Gonaives and other provincial ports were reopened in February, having been shut since the 1960s, when dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, the father of Jean-Claude, decided to concentrate shipping in Port-au-Prince to tighten control of the corrupt customs apparatus.

In the 1950s, Haiti exported rice, but production dropped under the Duvaliers when the secret police terrorized farmers, confiscating their land and forcing them to share their meager profits. Now the high cost of seed, fertilizer and agricultural loans (at 14% interest, compared to 4% in the neighboring Dominican Republic), keeps the local price uncompetitive.

“We cannot sell our rice,” said Emanuel Georges, manning the barricade at L’Estere. “The rice is coming in from Miami, and now we cannot live.” Georges said he must support a wife and eight children.


At the blockade, 50 youths searched for contraband rice under bundles of firewood on a slatted truck and among piles of luggage aboard a rickety bus painted with the slogan Terre Promise --Promised Land.

Contraband Rice Flows In

The government has banned rice imports, but it was not until three weeks ago that it seized its first contraband vessel, a Miami-based boat carrying rice, refrigerators and other goods into the port of Miragoane. A judge dismissed the charges after being assaulted by one of the smugglers.

An average of four vessels a day, and sometimes as many as 18, have continued to unload contraband rice in Gonaives. During protests against the Duvalier government, the customs house and dockside warehouses here and at other ports were burned. Customs officials, under pressure from unemployed residents who depend on the cheaper rice to feed their families, are still afraid to enforce the rules.

“We have a crisis of authority, as well as a political, economic and social crisis,” said Edgar Bruneau, a Gonaives schoolteacher and radio broadcaster. “No one knows who is governing. For three months they block the road and throw rice on the ground while the army just looks the other way.”

At the Toussaint L’Ouverture barracks here, Capt. Clerval Antoinier, the new commander of the town’s 200 soldiers, said the army does not want to confront the demonstrators.

“We want to avoid bloodshed at any cost,” he said. “I am for dialogue. We must be serene. We must proceed slowly.”

However, a public uproar after the Nov. 29 rampage forced the local court to issue an arrest warrant last Monday for four of the gang leaders. Last Thursday, as soldiers patrolled the slums searching for the suspects, more than 10,000 Artibonite peasants marched toward Gonaives, brandishing machetes and shouting for justice.


Vow ‘Invasion’ of Town

Antoinier met them a few miles from town with a megaphone and begged for more time to find the culprits. The peasants turned back but issued an ultimatum saying that if the suspects were not arrested by Monday, they would “invade” Gonaives.

Along Gonaives’ treeless dirt streets, the women who usually crouch before open sacks of rice in a helter-skelter peddlers’ market had fled in panic. Graffiti scrawled on a school asked for asphalt streets, for the church construction to be finished, for a youth sports center to be built.

Outside the local prefect’s house, next to an open sewer, a woman sold used clothing, imported from the United States. A shirt goes for 50 cents, a pair of pants for $1.50.

Recently the government, in an effort to protect the local textile industry, outlawed shipments of the clothing, known here as “Kennedys” because the shipments started under the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The minister of public health said the clothes, which are worn by an estimated 80% of the population, were infected with diseases.

Protests immediately broke out around the country, as poor people complained that they could not afford locally made clothes. Meanwhile, tailors and shoemakers took to the airwaves complaining that the “Kennedys” prevent them from making a living. Faced with a potentially explosive controversy, the government postponed the ban until Dec. 31.

“The secondhand clothing has meant that people are no longer naked,” said Father Jomanas Eustache, one of Jeremie’s young priests who preach the theology of liberation. In Jeremie, he said, “we closed the schools because one can’t study with anguish in one’s heart. There is no work. There are no factories. People are angry because they are forgotten.”