Bus and taxi drivers strike in Haiti. . .protest higher gas prices

AP, The Jamaica Observer, Wednesday 8 January 2003

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP)—A strike by bus and taxi drivers forced schools and many businesses to close in Haiti’s major cities yesterday in a protest against a dramatic rise in gasoline prices.

The price hikes since New Year’s Day followed a decision by the government to halt subsidies of gas and other petroleum products.

I have to go to work, but I support the strike 100 per cent, said Leonard Pierre, a 42-year-old factory worker who was waiting in a crowd for a rare bus in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Prices are out of control, and kerosene is so expensive my family spends its nights in the dark.

Many of Haiti’s 8.3 million people subsist on as little as 40 gourdes (US$1) a day. A 96-per cent rise in kerosene prices is making it difficult for the poor to light their lamps in shantytowns far from power lines.

Low-octane gasoline was selling at 80 gourdes (US$2.16) per gallon (21 gourdes (57 US cents per litre), a 74-per cent increase from a week ago. In response, many bus and taxi drivers have been forced to increase fares.

Few buses or taxis were out in Port-au-Prince, where schools and most businesses were shuttered in the metropolitan area of 2.5 million people. The one-day strike also paralyzed the second-largest city of Cap-Haitien. Many businesses and schools were reported closed in other, smaller cities.

Our role is to compel the government to go back on its decision, union leader Prince Simon said.

Government officials defended the decision to halt fuel subsidies as sound fiscal policy for the impoverished Caribbean country, and refused to cede to pressure.

The aim of the government is to ensure the protection of all consumers, government spokesman Mario Dupuy said.

A national budget deficit of some 3 billion gourdes (US$80 million) was one of the factors that made it impossible for the government to continue subsidies, officials said.

The government cited financial difficulties due to the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid after disputed 2000 legislative elections. Higher world oil prices stemming in part from an opposition strike in oil-producing Venezuela also made it difficult to continue subsidies, officials said.

Many gas stations were closed, as were some commercial banks. An unusually small number of street vendors were out working.

There were no major reports of violence, though unidentified youths threw stones at passing cars, smashing windows in the capital. Police removed a barricade of flaming tires from a seaside boulevard.

The strikers have political motivations and are acting in bad faith, said Jonas Petit, acting head of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Family party. They know the government had no choice, but they seize on any opportunity to destabilise the country.

The government buys oil shipments and, until this year, passed them along to wholesalers below cost. The subsidies cost the government some 500 million gourdes (about US$13.5 million) for October and November alone, Dupuy said.

Since mid-November, thousands have protested to call for Aristide’s resignation, accusing his government of corruption and failing to stave off poverty.

Aristide says he has brought relative peace and that blocked aid has hindered progress in easing poverty. He has refused to step down before his term ends in 2006.