PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Tension mounted in Haiti as pro-government militias thwarted an opposition march in the capital city yesterday, the first planned political action since unrest in the countryside shook this Caribbean nation last week.
Several opposition coalitions planned to swarm the presidential palace with banners and calls for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down from power.
But pro-Aristide groups burned tires, wood, and pieces of metal and furniture in the streets to block the marchers. At least one militia member hid a sawed-off shotgun in a T-shirt and others kept pistols tucked in their belts as the government supporters chanted “Five years!” — the length of the presidential term, which officially ends in 2006.
Police who were on hand took no visible action to unclog the street. Firefighters who arrived on the scene were warned by pro-Aristide forces to stay away from the blazing makeshift barricades.
“For their safety, they shouldn’t march,” Micha Gaillard, a leader of the Democratic Convergance, a coalition of some 200 political organizations that oppose President Aristide, warned his people over a local radio station.
Gaillard added that he believes Aristide is promoting the violence. Other opposition leaders said the police were working with the progovernment militias.
The clash in the capital comes amid increasing unrest in the Haitian countryside. In close to a dozen villages, anti-Aristide protesters have forced police to flee their outposts. Several towns are still under rebel control, including the port city of Gonaives, north of Port-au-Prince.
“The Haitian people are nonviolent,” President Aristide said in a press conference on Wednesday. “When we go to Gonaives, there we will find these same nonviolent people. Unfortunately, these nonviolent people in Gonaives suffer from a small group of thugs linked to the opposition.”
Aristide is a former Catholic priest who rose to prominence in the late 1980s after living for years with Haiti’s poor. With high rates of illiteracy and malnutrition, Haiti’s squalor is unmatched in the hemisphere. Slums spread through the hills that surround this sprawling capital city. Once a lush forest, the countryside now resembles a desert as the populace scrounges for wood to use as cooking fuel.
Running on a socialist platform, Aristide was elected president in 1990, only to be thrown out in a military coup less than a year later. In 1994, President Bill Clinton sent 23,000 troops to restore Aristide to the presidency. The US spent $2.3 billion in the operation that included training Haiti’s new police force to replace an army that had a long history of supporting the country’s dictatorships.
But Aristide’s promise has turned to disappointment. His party, Lavalas, won a flawed legislative election in 2000, and he was reelected later that same year. An international aid package of $500 million has been held up by the United States and other countries due to the disputed 2000 elections, and Aristide has faced scrutiny because of Haiti’s increasing role as a transshipment point for illegal drugs from Colombia.
On Wednesday, US officials hinted that Aristide should consider stepping down. Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reiterated his concern that Aristide has been unable to create “a stable democracy” but backed away from the administration’s earlier statements.
“The policy of the administration is not regime change. President Aristide is the elected president of Haiti,” Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington.
A leaderless Haiti could mean more problems for the United States. The resistance appears to be spontaneous in some areas and organized in others. This opposition — which includes businessmen, ex-officers of the military, church groups, worker organizations, and common criminals — seems to have little in common aside from its desire to remove Aristide from power.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.