Fri, Jan 02, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Little joy to mark Haiti's bicentennial

TROUBLED HISTORY Haiti's slaves smashed Napoleon's troops 200 years ago, but since then the republic's fortunes have only gone downhill

AFP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

Protesters dance as they burn a banner of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Port au Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday. Hundreds turned out to protest against Aristide's government as the country prepared for its bicentennial celebrations.

PHOTO: AP

Haiti was to mark its bicentennial yesterday, but for most in the poverty-ridden Caribbean state 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 intended to make itself heard yesterday.

The president had scheduled a speech in the capital for 8am yesterday, 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 US, angered when Aristide recognized communist-ruled Cuba in 1996, will be represented only by its ambassador.

Most of the world's democracies shunned the Nov. 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.

On Tuesday, two demonstrators suffered gunshot wounds.

Yesterday, "the 184" alliance planned 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," Apaid said. "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.

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