Gasoline market dies expensively


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Gasoline alley is shutting down.

The big barrels of fuel are gone. Most of the vendors who spent months inhaling noxious fumes and pouring precious gasoline from used gallon jugs have vanished.

All that remains of a once-bustling, exhaust-choking stretch of roadway are a few oil slicks and a dozen survivors trying to unload the last drops of what was once Haiti's black-market gold.

"There used to be fights and noise here," Bonel Datis said yesterday as the sun began setting on Port-au-Prince.

"Now, it's just a funeral."

But it sure is an expensive one.

The United Nations embargo is over, but Haiti's economy is reeling from one last body blow.

The price of gasoline has gone through the roof again.

With the American dollar plunging against the value of Haitian currency, gasoline now stands at about $22 a gallon.

This expensive going-out-of-business sale is expected to end sometime this week. All over Port-au-Prince, attendants at the long-closed gas stations are getting ready for the new supplies of fuel.

"People keep asking, 'When is the gas coming?' And I keep telling them, 'I don't know,' " said Anius Navius as he sat in front of a Texaco station by the airport.

If any one product symbolized the affect a U.N. embargo had on Haiti's shattered economy, it was gasoline.

Once the gas stopped flowing, the cars stopped running and the power plants stopped operating.

Without gas, farmers couldn't get their products to market. Without gas, whole cities found themselves without electricity.

But the supply of fuel never really stopped. Fuel trickled in by land and sea from the Dominican Republic. And then it was dispersed from one end of the country to the other, as thousands of people set up home-made gas stations.

With nothing more than five jugs and a funnel, former factory workers, auto mechanics, even former gas station attendants, went into the fuel business.

But pouring gas out of jugs is not a healthy way to make a living.

You've got to dip the buckets into fuel up to your elbows. You've got to siphon gas, drawing great gobs of it into your throat. And above everything else, you've got to inhale the fumes, for up to 12 hours a day in sweltering heat.

The survivors along gasoline alley are like punch-drunk fighters, slurring words, often shouting incomprehensibly, barely understanding even the simplest of questions.

Except of course, when it comes to the price of gas.

"This is no good for anyone," said Jipson Joseph, a 19-year-old who yearns to use his talents as a leather-maker. "I am just eating dust. I have headaches. I am making money. But I'm getting so sick over this. Enough."

Emmanuel Dacius is also glad gasoline alley is shutting down. He makes his living driving a taxicab, and for eight months he has been forced into a daily chase for gas.

"This is all like a mystery to me," he said. "One day we had gas. The next day, we didn't. Now, we are supposed to have it again. But I can't get gas."

Neither can Mr. Datis.

He is down to three gallons. The job he has held for the last four months is about to end.

Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Mr. Datis is not sure.

"I don't want to steal, that's why I do this, that's why I sell the gas," he said.

Mr. Datis is 38 years old. Unlike the other vendors, he has retained shreds of dignity, dressing as well as he can, making sure his pants are pressed and his shirts are washed, even managing to wear a watch and wedding band between dipping the jugs in the gas. He has a wife and three children to support on the $10 a week he makes pouring gas.

"This country has no life anymore," he said.

But believe it or not, a country's life and economy are returning. The gasoline is coming back. There are jobs on the way, too. They may be temporary, but the U.S. Agency for International Development is unveiling a plan to create about 60,000 jobs in the next two months.

More than $500 million in international investment is also expected to be made in Haiti within the next year.

That's money to rebuild roads, overhaul power plants and rejuvenate a port.

But Mr. Datis is losing the only job he has had for the last three years.

And he is glad.

Before the coup ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before the embargo, Mr. Datis was a mason.

"I want to build things again," he said. "The job I have now is not fit for anyone."

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