PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Hungry Haitians stormed the presidential palace Tuesday to demand the resignation of President Rene Preval over soaring food prices, and U.N. peacekeepers battled rioters with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Rioters were chased away from the presidential palace but by late afternoon had left trails of destruction across Port-au-Prince.
Concrete barricades and burned-out cars blocked streets, while windows were smashed and buildings set on fire from the capital’s center up through its densely populated hills.
Outnumbered U.N. peacekeepers watched as people looted businesses near the presidential palace, not budging from the building’s perimeter. Nearby, but out of sight of authorities, another group swarmed a slow-moving car and tried to drag its female driver out the window.
“We are hungry! He must go!” protesters shouted as they tried to break into the presidential palace by charging its chained gates with a rolling dumpster.
Moments later, Brazilian soldiers in blue U.N. helmets arrived in jeeps and assault vehicles, firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and forcing protesters away from the gates.
Food prices, which have risen 40 percent on average since mid-2007, are causing unrest around the world. But nowhere do they pose a greater threat to democracy than in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries where in the best of times most people struggle to fill their bellies.
“I think we have made progress in stabilizing the country, but that progress is extremely fragile, highly reversible, and made even more fragile by the current socio-economic environment,” U.N. envoy Hedi Annabi said Tuesday after briefing the Security Council.
For months, Haitians have compared their hunger pains to “eating Clorox” because of the burning feeling in their stomachs. The most desperate have come to depend on a traditional hunger palliative of cookies made of dirt, vegetable oil and salt.
Riots broke out in the normally placid southern port of Les Cayes last week, quickly escalating as protesters tried to burn down a U.N. compound and leaving five people dead. The protests spread to other cities, and on Monday tens of thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Preval, a soft-spoken leader backed by Washington, was at work in the palace during the protests, aides said.
He has made no public statements since the riots began.
“I compare this situation to having a bucket full of gasoline and having some people around with a box of matches,” said Preval adviser Patrick Elie.
“As long as the two have a possibility to meet, you’re going to have trouble.”
The protesters also are demanding the departure of the 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, whom they blame in part for rising food prices.
The peacekeepers came to Haiti in 2004 to quell the chaos that followed the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.