Thousands protests against government in Haiti
By Michael Deibert
CAP HAITIEN, Haiti, Nov 17 (Reuters) Thousands took the streets of Haiti’s second-largest city on Sunday to demand the resignation of the country’s embattled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The march, sponsored by a local umbrella-organization known as the Citizens Initiative, began at the city’s center and continued on through the historic city gates, increasing manifold as it went along. Police sources estimated the crowd at around 8,000 people.
As the march progressed, with opposition politicians, former members of the Haitian military and civil society figures at its head, thousands of ordinary citizens spilled out of the city’s populous slums to join in chants of “Down with Aristide” and “Down with Lavalas criminals,” a reference to Aristide’s ruling Lavalas Family political party. Others smiled and clapped, pumping their fists from rooftops and balconies.
“Aristide is a thief!” some shouted. “Send him to prison!”
“We want Aristide to leave because he has given us nothing, no work, no rice, only hunger,” said a frail peasant man from the nearby hamlet of San Raphael, lifting up his shirt to show his emaciated rib cage.
The marchers then scaled a monument commemorating an historic battle in the city where rebellious Haitians defeated colonial French forces in 1803, raising the Haitian flag as march organizers addressed the cheering throng.
“All those who want to build hope for the country, raise their hand; all those who want to get rid of Aristide, raise their hand; all those who want to respect human rights, raise their hand!” shouted Evans Paul, an opposition politician, to the thunderous applause of the crowd assembled.
Paul, a member of the Democratic Convergence opposition coalition and former mayor of the capital, Port-au-Prince, continued: “We will fight against dictatorship, we will fight for liberty! Citizens alongside citizens, without division, without violence.”
SECOND PROTEST IN THREE DAYS
The march proceeded under police protection, and the heavily outfitted riot officers were cheered by the crowd at the march’s end.
“We thank the Haitian National Police for providing security for the people today,” said Himmler Robu, a former officer in the army that ousted Aristide in a military coup in 1991. Aristide disbanded the army when he was returned to power by a U.S.-led multinational force in 1994.
“The struggle begins today, and it requires intelligence, determination and a clear head,” Robu said.
The protest comes on the heels of a large march in the capital Friday by university students protesting against what they said was the government’s interference in the country’s state university system.
The students stormed and occupied the university’s rectory, then marched to the gates of the National Palace, demanding Aristide’s resignation and new elections.
Aristide began his second term as Haiti’s president in February 2001 and has since been locked in a two-year dispute with the Convergence coalition over May 2000 legislative elections that his opponents contend were biased to favor Aristide’s Lavalas party.
The deadlock has stalled over $500 million in international aid.
Inflation in Haiti has risen 16%, and the Haitian currency, the gourde, has lost 40% of value in the past year.
A pyramid investment scheme collapsed last summer, wiping out the life savings of tens of thousands of Haitians and a rumor that the cash-strapped government was planning to convert dollar bank accounts to the Haitian currency at a low rate recently resulted in a run on banks that saw depositors withdraw $20 million in three days.
The country has also seen a marked increase in political violence over the past year, including an attack by unidentified commandos on the National Palace, anti-government riots in the capital and elsewhere, and increased threats to press freedom by government supporters.