Originally: Reality Puts Damper on Haiti’s Bicentennial Party

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ? Haitians marked their country’s bicentennial of independence yesterday with passionate displays of pride, violence and vitriol to commemorate the bloody slave revolt that created the world’s first black republic.

Tens of thousands filled the streets of this deeply troubled capital in rival expressions of joy over the 200-year-old feat of abolishing slavery and anger at the persistent restraints on their liberty and living standards today. 

At a morning ceremony on the lawn of the National Palace, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide vowed to a crowd of about 15,000 supporters to lift his nation out of the abject poverty and despair prevailing a decade after a U.S. invasion restored him to power.

Three hours later, throngs of government opponents crashed through police roadblocks in a march that quickly escalated into a melee. Police dispersed one group of about 5,000 by firing into the crowd, wounding six people and angering participants in what had begun as a peaceful protest. 

Throughout the afternoon, the anti-Aristide crowd swelled to about 20,000, setting fire to piles of tires, choking the crumbling streets with thick black smoke and pelting police with rocks and bottles.

Bursts of police gunfire and screaming sirens put an abrupt end to the air of celebration that had prevailed earlier.

Most of the unrest played out in the capital as Aristide flew to the volatile city of Gonaives to deliver a speech at the site of Haiti’s Jan. 1, 1804, proclamation of independence. 

Repeatedly delayed by reports of unrest in the city, the visit was curtailed after gunshots rang out from among crowds of demonstrators. State-controlled television failed to carry the address, instead repeating footage from a music and dance performance the previous evening. 

Throughout the capital, billboards and banners cast Aristide as the historical equal of Haiti’s father of independence, slave-revolt leader Toussaint Louverture. “Two men, two centuries, the same vision,” read a huge placard with the president’s beaming countenance on one side and a drawing of Louverture on the other.

Aristide’s government spent $15 million on the celebration, including 200 place settings of china commemorating the anniversary. But neither the paving of the road to Gonaives nor the Monument 2004 construction on the palace lawn were completed in time for the ceremonies.

The mounting unrest and marred celebrations highlighted the deep divide running through this poorest country of the Western Hemisphere. Lawyers and jurists have refused to operate courts in protest of government interference. Students and teachers have been boycotting classes for weeks.

Malnutrition afflicts two-thirds of the population, 80 percent are unemployed, and life expectancy has fallen to a hemispheric low of 49 years. On Monday, the national parliament will cease to function because deputies’ mandates expire then and the government and rival political forces have failed to organize new elections.

“Look at this city! There is no work. There is no food. The people are starving. The streets are filthy and stinking. This is not my country!” fumed Franz Gilbert, a 54-year-old mechanic taking part in the march with his wife and adult children.

The show of solidarity against Aristide drew students, homemakers, professional people and artists as well as the moneyed elite and disenfranchised who have long made up the polarized opposition.

The protest, expected to replay itself today, appeared to be the largest outpouring of frustration in years.

“This is the first time I see all kinds of Haitians taking part: the rich, the poor, the black, the light-skinned. We need a change in this country,” said Maria, a 24-year-old computer programmer who feared giving more than her first name. Like others who skipped the palace pageantry, she said she saw nothing to celebrate. “We do not have real liberty. In many ways we are still slaves.”