PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Marcel Cineus scanned the crowd for hints of a potential customer as people bustled past his wooden stall filled with hundreds of textbooks in the hills of Port-au-Prince.
School was supposed to start in early September, and Cineus by now would have sold a couple hundred books. But violent protests have shuttered public schools and businesses and left Haiti’s economy sputtering and inflation ballooning as the opposition demands the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.
As a result, Cineus sold less than a dozen books last month.
“Nothing is working with this president,” he said. “Some days I don’t have a single person buying a book. Zero.”
Cineus is in debt to the wholesale company from which he buys brightly colored math, biography, grammar and geography books for elementary schoolchildren. The 42-year-old vendor has had to keep half of what he owes the company so he can buy food for his three children.
It’s a domino effect familiar to many of the nearly 11 million people who live in Haiti, where 60% make less than $2 a day and 25% earn less than $1 a day. Their daily struggles have become more acute as protests and roadblocks force the closure of businesses, sometimes permanently, as people lose jobs and dwindling incomes fall behind a spike in prices.
Before the newest round of protests began in early September, Haiti’s economy was already flailing. The country had seen a reduction in funds from Petrocaribe, a Venezuela-subsidized oil plan, given the drop in oil prices, and international aid for recovery from the devastating 2010 earthquake was dwindling.
The government turned to Haiti’s Central Bank for money, which sparked a devaluation of the Haitian gourde and led to a spike in inflation. Before 2015, the exchange rate was 40 gourdes to $1. Now, it’s nearly 100 gourdes for $1. Inflation over the past five years rose from less than 10% a year to almost 20%, said Haitian economist Kesner Pharel.
Then the protests jolted the economy three weeks ago, he said, noting that food is not coming out of Haiti’s countryside and manufactured goods from the capital are not reaching rural areas.
“You still have demand, but no supply,” he said. “Right now we are running out of water, we are running out of gas.”
Moise’s administration made a gesture to alleviate the economic crunch Thursday by distributing plates of rice and beans, several-kilogram bags of rice and school backpacks with notebooks and pens during an event at the mayor’s office compound in the seaside slum of Cité de Soleil.
Thousands of people pushed their way in, with hundreds left outside, fighting and pleading with guards to let them enter. Some ate only a few bites of the rice and beans, then rolled the paper plate like a burrito, saving the rest for family members back home.
Gerda Casimer, a 34-year-old unemployed woman, stood in a line of about 100 people after walking a couple of hours to get food to feed her three children.
“They are crying, ‘Mommy, mommy, I need something to eat,’” she said.
Around her, young people helped some of the elderly as they stumbled with the heavy sacks of rice.
Cité de Soleil Mayor Jean Frédéric Hislain told The Associated Press that he had 3,000 sacks of rice and 1,500 backpacks to distribute.
The president, meanwhile, made his first in-person public appearance since the unrest began.