Originally: Little for Haiti to celebrate on its bicentennial

PORT-AU-PRINCE : Haiti marks its bicentennial, but for most in the poverty-ridden Caribbean state in the throes of political chaos, there is little to celebrate.What should have been a festive event, commemorating history’s only successful revolt by slaves who sent Napoleon’s troops packing, will instead transpire under a cloud of elusive democracy, economic chaos and primitive health and sanitary conditions.It could also turn into a nightmare for its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest elected in 1990 on a wave of democratic hope but who is today opposed by a vast sector of the population, which denounces him as a despot and intends to make itself heard on Thursday.The president has scheduled a speech in the capital for 8:00 am (1300 GMT) Thursday, replete with the nation’s blue and red flag and banners proclaiming “Jesus, Haiti, Aristide – Credo of the Haitian People,” and “1804-2004: Haiti, Mother of Freedom.”After the speech he goes to the northern city of Gonaives, focal point of modern-day opposition and the spot where independence was proclaimed 200 years ago.He will be accompanied there by South African President Thabo Mbeki, the only head of state scheduled to participate. France is sending a parliamentary delegation.The United States, angered when Aristide recognized communist-ruled Cuba in 1996, will be represented only by its ambassador.Most of the world’s democracies shunned the November 18 celebration of Haiti’s pivotal Battle of Vertieres in protest against government repression of an opposition demonstration.Haiti has become inexorably mired in political crisis since the May 2000 legislative elections whose outcome was heavily contested, followed by the presidential election — boycotted by the opposition — which retained Aristide by 91 percent of the vote.Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, is also targeted by human rights groups which denounce corruption, political assassinations, government pressure on the press and opposition and the failure to establish an independent police force or a judicial system worthy of its name.Led by Washington, which has frozen its aid to Haiti, the international community is pressuring Aristide’s government to hold parliamentary elections which have been put on hold for lack of adequate security and by opposition demands that Aristide first resign.The president for several months has felt the pressure of an increasingly strong opposition, rallied around an alliance of 184 organizations of business leaders, doctors, feminists, intellectuals and farm unionists that have taken over from a waning political opposition.The alliance is seeking Aristide’s resignation, and its increasingly frequent demonstrations have often degenerated into clashes with police and armed gangs linked to the government, leaving dead and wounded in their wake.Tuesday, two demonstrators suffered gunshot wounds.On Thursday, “the 184″ plans to parade, and place a wreath at the capital’s Heros’ Plaza, said its coordinator, Andre Apaid, who accuses Aristide of hijacking the bicentennial celebration for his own political ends.”He wants to turn it into a trampoline, but people are angry at the way he is politicizing an event like this,” said Apaid. “In any case, I think he’s lost the enthusiasm of the people. He has major problems.”Aristide’s information minister, Mario Dupuy, insisted the president’s popularity remains intact.On Thursday, “We are counting on the support of the people,” he said, adding he does not expect trouble.Meanwhile, preparation for the celebration was in evidence throughout the capital, with podiums under construction and fresh paint being applied to kiosks and streetcorners.But once the celebrating is over, Haiti, two-thirds of whose population lives below poverty level, will face yet another crisis. On January 12 parliamentary terms of office run out, posing the prospect of an institutional vacuum that could deepen political tensions here.- AFP