CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) — In the largest public demonstration against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide since his election two years ago, thousands marched peacefully Sunday, calling for an alternative to his allegedly antidemocratic government.
“We’re hungry! Aristide must go!” chanted the boisterous crowd of tens of thousands, including business leaders and politicians, workers and unemployed. Local radio stations reported up to 60,000 participants.
Under heavy police protection, the protesters marched 2 miles (3 kilometers) outside Cap-Haitien to Vertieres, where on November 18, 1803, an indigenous army defeated French colonial forces after 11 years of bloody struggle for emancipation from centuries of slavery. On January 1, 2004, Haiti will celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its independence.
Sunday’s march, endorsed by opposition parties, culminated a series of activities under Unity Weekend, organized by the nonpartisan Citizens Initiative in an effort to simultaneously “reflect on our history and social and economic situation,” spokesman Frandley Denis Julien said.
“Our government is despotic, corrupt and incompetent, and we want to create a core of civil society resistance,” Julien said, denying the government’s allegations that his nonviolent group was subversive.
“To demonstrate is a basic civil liberty, and it has to be respected. All classes of people are unhappy with the situation and want it to change,” said Marc Georges, president of the North district Chamber of Commerce, who participated in the march.
Sunday’s march came two days before Aristide’s government must prove it has established a secure environment for future elections, according to a deadline set by five civil society institutions.
The institutions said that, without guarantees of security, they will not designate representatives to a nine-member electoral council to organize next year’s ballot.
Haiti’s government and opposition parties have been in a stalemate since flawed May 2000 balloting gave most victories to governing party candidates.
The opposition charged the vote was rigged, and the failure to agree on new elections has held up hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid.
Haiti’s economy in the meantime has foundered, poverty deepened, and the government is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of confidence.
The Organization of American States has urged donors to release the frozen aid, but also had given the government until November 4 to set up the new electoral council — a deadline Haiti missed because civil society institutions and the opposition demanded more security guarantees before they participated.
In a November 11 predawn attack, unidentified men in military camouflage shot at the Cap-Haitien police station. There were no reported injuries or arrests.
“It was an event badly staged to prevent the march from taking place,” Julien said.
Government officials suggested the alleged attack was linked to Citizens Initiative, which the group denied.
On Wednesday, Moise Jean-Charles, the pro-Aristide mayor of the North district town of Milot, called on Aristide “sympathizers to rise and defend themselves” against the allegedly subversive Citizens Initiative movement.
The weekend was calm, but Friday morning Aristide grass-roots street activists built flaming tire barricades around town to protest the planned activities.
“The government is in a panic, afraid of people who are demanding accountability. It wants to prevent free thought and discussion,” said former army officer Himmler Rebu, who participated in the march.
In the capital last month, “a commando was sent to eliminate me physically,” said Rebu, “a concerned citizen, with no political party affiliation,” who has written newspaper articles critical of the government.
On Saturday, a Catholic parochial school and a nightclub owner, citing security concerns, reneged on their promise to house an all-day symposium.
Instead, tents were pitched, amplifiers set up, and several thousand Haitians from all over the Caribbean country stood in a blocked-off street listening for two hours to the speeches by intellectuals and opposition politicians. No incidents were reported.
Police were instructed to ensure the security, and no governing party “counter demonstration has been planned,” said Aristide’s private Cabinet head Jean-Claude Desranges on Friday.