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Bicentennial marked by protests
Jane Regan
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Aristide’s government is questioned on 200th celebration of Haiti’s independence.

Two hundred years ago, the smoke cleared after 13 years of bloody fighting that left the cities, plantations and fields of the French colony of St. Dominque charred and razed and the new nation of Haiti declared its independence from France. It was the world’s first successful black slave revolution and only the second republic in the hemisphere.

Former slave Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines and other generals gathered in the port town of Gonaives on Jan. 1, 1804. They announced that from now on, Haiti would have “a stable government” where people would “enjoy a freedom consecrated in blood.”

But two centuries and over 30 coup d’états later, Haiti is still in search of the stability and, according to government critics, the freedoms her forefathers promised. But rather than colonist vs. slave, mulatto vs. black or rich vs. poor, today the government and its supporters face off against anti-government protests.

Not surprisingly, when Haiti celebrated her bicentennial on Jan. 1 and 2, criticism, controversy and violence accompanied celebrations, pomp and circumstance.

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide led ceremonies in Port-au-Prince and in Gonaïves and some two dozen countries and the Pope sent delegations, but contrary to original plans, the only heads of state were South African President Thabo Mbeki and Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie. Several countries decided to send low-level officials because of the unrest and the continued criticism of the Aristide government.

Ever since Aristide and the parliament were elected in allegedly flawed races in November 2000 (LP, Dec. 11, 2000), his government has faced criticism and economic sanctions at the international level and growing demonstrations locally. Over 40 people have been killed and almost 100 wounded in the past three months due to unrest, protests, and police violence. Aristide’s critics are demanding he resign before the end of his five year-term (LP, Sept. 24, 2003).

Still, on Jan.1 tens of thousands turned out for speeches, dances and the release of white doves at the National Palace. In their frenzy to reach the National Palace veranda, where Aristide, Mbeki and several hundred officials and guests sat. Aristide fans toppled the wrought iron fence and collapsed stands, but this only made them more enthusiastic.

Aristide, a former priest who knows how to whip up a crowd, spoke in Haitian Creole, French, Spanish and English about the importance of the slave revolution and his vision for Haiti’s future. But he also made sure he showed his supporters, guests and foreign journalists present that he had no intention of resigning.

“How many times did I say Happy New Year?!” he cajoled the sea of upturned and shouting faces. “Five times! Five times! For how many years? Five years!”

Aristide also repeated one of the themes of the celebration: “Haiti is the mother of liberty… The first black republic is and will always be the geographic reference point for the liberty of black people!”

Mbeki, criticized in his country for showing too much support for Aristide, also stressed the revolution’s significance.

“We celebrate the Haitian Revolution because it dealt a deadly blow to the slave traders,” he said.

Mbeki did not attend the day’s second event in after a South African navy helicopter was reportedly fired upon by unknown gunmen.

The small port city of Gonaïves is a hotbed of anti-Aristide sentiment and has been mostly paralyzed by protests and violence since Sept. 22 when a pro-government gang leader, Amiot Metáyer, was murdered (LP, Oct. 29, 2003). His gang, once known as the “Cannibal Army” and which used to harass anti-government protestors and anyone else they deemed not sufficiently loyal to Aristide, switched sides after the brutal assassination they blamed on the National Palace.

For over three months now, they have marched, lit tire barricades and protested, demanding Aristide’s resignation. Repeated police attacks on the group’s seaside slum has left dozens of mostly bystanders dead.

Just a week prior, the region’s Catholic priests had deplored the government’s lack of respect for human rights and blamed Aristide directly, asking him to make “a patriotic gesture” and resign.

“Today, it is our own brothers who want to make us slaves in our own country. That situation is intolerable and revolts us,” said Father Marc Eddy Dessalines on Dec. 23. “We don’t see how we can celebrate Jan. 1, 2004, when the city is full of desolation, sadness and fear.”

Apart from the several thousand bussed-in Aristide supporters in the city plaza, blocked off from the rest of town by a wall of containers, most doors were shut in Gonaives. As government corteges made their way from the plaza to a runway where helicopters and chartered planes were waiting, unknown gunmen fired on them.

In the capital, government critics tried to hold several demonstrations. A group of several hundred students, professors, artists and others marched to join a much larger protest of many thousands of protestors from the Democratic Platform of Civil Society and Opposition Political parties — which groups together several dozen business associations, unions, and political parties.

The group was soon attacked by heavily armed and black-hooded anti-riot police, some of whom shot in the direction of the marchers. At least two people, including a professor, were wounded by bullets.

“Look at them! Film them! Tell the world!” terrified protestors shouted to a journalist as they fled the phalanx of approaching police.

Police also blocked the larger march, using teargas and firing their weapons into the air. Some protestors regrouped and tried to head downtown, but they were stopped by rock-, bottle- and pistol-wielding Aristide supporters who refused to let journalists approach. Anti-government protestors later set up over a half-dozen burning barricades to show their anger.

Aristide ended his Jan. 1 declaration predicting the next decade would bring improvements in healthcare, education, social and economic indicators and called for “peace in 2004” but on Jan. 5 the opposition platform announced more demonstrations and strikes.


Haitian president Jean - Bertr
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