PORT-AU-PRINCE, HaitiHaiti, the world’s oldest black republic, celebrates its bicentennial Jan. 1 amid growing worries that continued political division and violence might once again send it spinning out of control.

At the center of the political storm in this troubled Caribbean nation is President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest who was hailed as the savior of Haiti‘s impoverished masses when he was elected president in 1990. Now he is vilified by his opponents and isolated from many international partners who might help his struggling nation.

While Aristide’s government has planned elaborate celebrations leading up to the bicentennial, his opponents have mounted demonstrations calling for his resignation, leaving the capital suspended in an uneasy state of nervous expectation.

“People are afraid,” said Robert August, head of an opposition political party. “The streets are controlled by thugs loyal to the government, and nobody wants to go out. We are in a social crisis.”

Ousted in a 1991 coup less than a year after taking office, Aristide was returned to power in 1994 after former President Jimmy Carter and a team including former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and current Secretary of State Colin Powell negotiated the departure of the military leaders. Carter’s efforts averted a likely U.S. military intervention.

Aristide won re-election in 2000. But his government has been hamstrung by a stalemate with opposition parties that claim Aristide supporters engaged in electoral fraud to win several parliamentary seats in the 2000 elections.

International donors have withheld $500 million in aid to Haiti, demanding new elections for the contested seats. In recent months a few new loans have been approved, but the money has not been released.

Meanwhile, Haiti has slid into dire circumstances, with widespread misery on a scale that outstrips even its poorest neighbors in this hemisphere. More than 80 percent of Haiti‘s 8 million people survive on less than $400 a year. The World Bank lists Haiti as the fourth most undernourished nation on the planet.

Haiti has the highest rate of HIV infection outside of Africa and ranks at the bottom in the availability of potable water and most other measures of development. The once lush landscape has been stripped of vegetation to make charcoal to fuel kitchen fires, leading to erosion of topsoil needed for agriculture.

Street crime is rampant, with drug trafficking now a major source of income for a criminal class that easily eludes a national police force of fewer than 5,000 officers.

‘Heritage of liberty’

In the midst of such misery, many Haitians say they see little reason to celebrate their bicentennial.

“Our heritage of liberty and securing the rights of man is great,” said Jean Alix Rene, an American-educated scholar who teaches at Haiti University. “But we haven’t properly held on to the ideals of those who struggled for freedom in 1804. Today Haiti is far from those ideals.”

Haiti has never enjoyed much political stability. After overthrowing their French masters, some of Haiti‘s earliest leaders wound up naming themselves kings or emperors, keeping the masses of former slaves in poverty on the plantations.

The new country made its neighbors — the United States and colonies of France, Spain and Britain — nervous, as its very existence called into question the institution of slavery, then still widespread in the hemisphere.

But Haiti was also torn internally between the former slaves and a tiny minority of light-skinned offspring of French masters and African slaves, who were called mulattoes. Considered free people during slavery times, the mulattoes sought to imitate the former French plantation masters by dominating Haiti‘s politics and economy.

The unfortunate hallmark of Haiti‘s political history became violence, political intrigue and government corruption. Of 22 heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one finished his full term in office, with the rest assassinated or sent into exile on corruption charges.

The 20th century was marked by a U.S. intervention that lasted from 1915 until 1934, followed by the Duvaliers, a father-son dictatorship that held power in a reign of bloody terror from 1957 until 1986.

Against this backdrop, Aristide emerged in the 1980s as a fearless beacon of hope for many Haitians. Earning his reputation with fiery sermons demanding social justice for the poor, he served as a Catholic priest in the capital’s slums. He became a last-minute presidential candidate in a 1990 election, which the Atlanta-based Carter Center helped to monitor, and won by a landslide, sparking wild celebrations.

But his time in office — broken up by the coup and Haiti‘s Constitution, which barred his running for re-election in 1996 — hasn’t produced any dramatic reversal for Haiti‘s poor masses. It has also been marked by continued political paralysis.

“I have never seen Haiti at such an impasse,” said Ken Boodhoo, a professor at Florida International University in Miami. “The country is in a state of total collapse, and Aristide is using force and fear to stay in power, just like the dictators before him.”

Aristide, a diminutive, soft-spoken man who speaks perfect English, denies the charges and says his attempts to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure have been torpedoed by the international community’s withholding of aid.

“Pay attention to the silent voice of the huge majority of Haitians,” he said in a recent conversation with foreign reporters. “You’ll hear an eloquent voice tell you, ‘We are not educated, but we are not dumb. We understand this strategy being used to stop a country from moving.’ “

Aristide’s opponents lack a charismatic leader and have been torn by their own internal divisions. In recent months, a coalition of business and civic leaders has emerged, calling for a new “social contract” that all political parties should agree on as a starting point to move the country out of its morass.

“The amount of suffering has brought a moment of national unity,” said Andy Apaid, a factory owner who has led the coalition, which recently began calling for Aristide’s resignation. “He is treating people with the same repressive ways and mistakes made in the past.”

Aristide has recently taken up a call for France to pay restitution to Haiti. In its fledgling days as a nation, Haiti paid 60 million francs to France as compensation for the loss of its colony, an amount Aristide claims has grown, with interest, to $21 billion in U.S. dollars.

The French government has reacted coolly, but Aristide has filled the airwaves of Haitian state television with grand plans for spending the money on infrastructure and social development projects.

Violent demonstration

Despite the charges of his opponents, Aristide still has strong support among the poor, although exact numbers are impossible to determine.

“This country was kidnapped 200 years ago after independence by the light-skinned people, and they are still holding the black people down,” said Vanel Louis Paul, 27, who turned out recently to show his support of Aristide to counter anti-government demonstrations. “Aristide is our first president elected freely by the people, so he will stay in power.”

Protests against the government picked up steam after a gang shouting Aristide’s praises trashed a downtown campus of Haiti University and beat more than 20 students and faculty in a Dec. 5 melee sparked by an anti-Aristide student protest.

Aristide claims his opponents are using the leadup to the Jan. 1 bicentennial celebration to embarrass his government, but vows he won’t give in.

With tensions rising, all eyes seem fixed on Jan. 1, when the president traditionally travels to the western coastal city of Gonaives to speak on the spot where Haitian independence was declared in 1804.

A band of former Aristide supporters in Gonaives has now turned against him and has engaged in a three-month running battle with police that has left more than 25 people dead. Aristide, however, vows to visit the city on the country’s anniversary.

“It’s an historic issue,” he said. “It’s a must.”