Haiti quake is big business for some

by Beatriz Lecumberri, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 21 2010 10:16 PM | Updated as of Jan 22 2010 06:16 AM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Haiti's devastating earthquake has meant huge profits for traders selling water, oil and phone cards in the capital.

General shortages and an influx of foreigners with dollars since the January 12 quake have led to record price rises for everything from water, to gas, to phone cards, to taxis.

While the Haitian capital remains devastated, anyone who managed to stash extra food, petrol or cigarettes can now get rich, quick.

"I had several cans of gasoline at home for a factory on my property and I have been selling them little by little" said Ludovic. Now the canisters he sells disappear in minutes.

"Its 400 Haitian gourdes, no haggling," he said pricing a can at around ten US dollars. Before the quake a gallon of gasoline (four liters) fetched 200 gourdes.

With the gradual reopening of petrol stations, few have to depend on street vendors, but even in official outlets, the price has risen 20 percent in a week.

"If we want to get work, we have to pay more for gasoline," said taxi driver Leonard, who waited his turn at one of the reopened stations.

"At the same time, we are earning more if we pick up the foreigners who have come to the city."

Where water and soft drinks are sold, prices have risen more than 100 percent.

A 250 milliliter bag of water that once cost a gourde, now costs three. The soda that cost 10 gourde, now costs 20.

Phone cards, despite having the price labeled on them, also cost double. So too cigarettes and alcohol.

"Surely at these prices they rob the goods from any old semi-destroyed supermarket and sell them" lamented Corinne, wheeling a trolley full of the drinks.

Hotelers -- faced with a legion of journalists -- are not above price gouging either.

"On Tuesday, the rooms cost 70 dollars, on Wednesday, 200," said the manager of a Port-au-Prince hotel, who asked not to be named.

"We are not stealing, we offer a service when there are no services in the city.

"We try to give journalists, who are our only clients right now, water, electricity, Internet. That has a price."

In a city where all restaurants and 90 percent of the supermarkets are destroyed or closed, eating one proper meal a day is also a luxury that comes at a steep price.

A plate of pasta with tomato costs 11 dollars, scrambled eggs 13 dollars. Prices in the capital of the poorest country in the region are now comparable to those in Madrid or Rome.

"People have practically nothing to eat on the street. Humanitarian aid is not arriving. Getting this food costs money and time," said Maurice, the head of a hotel kitchen.

Taxis, already a luxury in the Haitian capital before the quake, are now well beyond the reach of all but the richest.

Cars are rented for up to 300 dollars per day, including driver and full fuel tank. For the same service a motorcycle, costs 100 dollars, or nearly 4,000 gourdes, in a country where the average worker earns 150 gourdes per day.

"I'm earning a lot of money" admitted Frederic Leny, a taxi driver, "but this is not going to last. Within days the rest of the world will have forgotten Haiti.

"I have to save because practically the whole country is without work now," he said expecting fewer fares ahead.