Adding gas to the fire

Reflections and observations from Robi about the recent gas crisis in Port au Prince – and what it looks like on the streets of Port au Prince.

Rumors and knowledge spread like wildfire in Port au Prince. Everything else moves so slowly in the capital that most people lot of time to talk – in stalled taptaps, in the lull at the informal markets, on the curb when it is too hot to sit inside. The streets are a living university. We’ve seen carpenters and welders turn into political scientists, debating the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and how it compared to Haiti’s history of coup d’etat. We’ve sat with young people examining the mental illness whenever there is a school shooting in America.  And now, because of Haiti’s gas crisis, everyone in Port au Prince has become deeply interested in international economics.

Crisis may be the wrong word – Haiti’s gas prices have been around 215 gourdes (about $4.58 US) per gallon for about a year. But somehow, over the past few weeks, word has spread around Haiti’s capital that gas prices have been falling dramatically in the rest of the world – and Haitians have been asking why gas prices only fell by 15 gourdes (about 32 cents) to 200 gourdes a gallon here at home.

Robi has been amazed at how the debates have been unfolding in the streets: women in market stalls asking each other how large a barrel of gas is, finding comparably-sized containers, and estimating how many gallons would fit in it (42 it seems). People at street vendors buying fried plantains and chicken debating how much gas Haiti burns through every day (somewhere around 20,000 gallons). Young men in Cite Soleil using their internet credit on their cheap phones to find out what the global prices of gas are. Older men sitting on a curb calculating how many gas-guzzling SUVs and Landcruisers the Haitian government has, how much gas they use per day, and how much that costs the country.

And the debates have all eventually led to one point: PetroCaraibe, the Venezuelan government’s program to sell Haiti subsidized gas. Questions about what the terms of the deal were, why the cost of gas hadn’t come down more, and what the government was doing with the money in this program were everywhere. Tensions in the country were already smoldering after weeks of anti-government protests that came on the heels of the dissolution of Parliament less than a month ago – these questions were like pouring gas on the flames.

The country erupted in protests, with unions organizing a general transit strike on the 2nd and 3rd of February. Port au Prince shut down: the taptaps that the majority of Haitians rely on to get around were nowhere to be found, and some of the private vehicles that ventured into the streets were met with violence. After negotiations with the government, it was announced that the price of gas would come down 5 gourdes (11 cents) to 195 gourdes. People were furious – they accused the unions of selling out. Economists came on the radio to explain why the government couldn’t bring down prices more, and callers into those radio shows said that the state was paying them to tell lies. There is so much mistrust right now that what started out as a debate on the street couldn’t become a national dialogue – it has become a cacophony where no one can hear anyone else. The opposition has used this as an opportunity to call for more anti-government protests downtown.

Another strike was called for Monday and Tuesday, and it went quietly. The only cars in the roads were media and ambulances. Robi saw young boys using the main roads to play soccer. The streets were so empty he could finally see how much trash was everywhere – and he imagined how Port au Prince could be beautiful again if it just wasn’t so crowded. But by Wednesday, the streets were full of the noise and chaos of millions of people trying to make a living, and the price of gas was still 195 gourdes.

There are more strikes called for after Carnival.

An image promoting the strike, from EzileDanto.com

An image promoting the strike, from EzileDanto.com

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