Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Bloomberg cancels Haiti trip as strike enters second day

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

A strike called by Haiti's opposition shuttered most stores and banks in the capital for a second day Friday, the latest in a series of protests aimed at pressuring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down.

The strike came as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would cancel a trip to the Caribbean nation this weekend due to worsening unrest. On Wednesday, thousands of students and other Aristide opponents marched in a protest marred by violence that left three dead and more than two dozen injured.

Bloomberg is postponing the trip "in light of recent conflict in Haiti" and on the recommendation of the US State Department, press secretary Ed Skyler said. Eliminating the stop in Haiti, the mayor will travel on to Jamaica Sunday as planned, Skyler said.

Meanwhile, traffic was light Friday in Port-au-Prince and there were noticeably few customers at outdoor markets, though vendors were out as usual.

"My only faith is in God. I don't know what's happening, but I know I'm poor, my children are hungry and I can't make ends meet if there's no peace," said Margarethe Pierre, 45, a mother of five who was selling clocks and radios from a stand.

Informal businesses like hers dominate Haiti's withering economy, and government spokesman Mario Dupuy said the fact that so many people kept working showed the strike had little effect. Government offices were open and buses were running as usual.

"Most people went about their business as usual," he said, adding that protests and strikes are "leading the country nowhere."

But the Democratic Platform, a coalition of opposition parties and civil groups that called the strike, declared it a success. New street protests against Aristide were called for Sunday and Monday.

During protests in the past four months, at least 45 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded.

Gas stations were to remain closed through the weekend as the National Association of Petroleum Distributors said it was protesting vandalism and robberies of stations during Wednesday's unrest.

Most doctors didn't report for work Friday at the capital's State University Hospital, where witnesses said armed thugs stormed the building two days earlier demanding to see any who had joined student protests.

Meanwhile, witnesses said government opponents burned two houses in western Gonaives on Wednesday. No one was reported injured.

Government opponents accuse Aristide of hoarding power and failing to help the poor, while the president accuses the opposition of impeding progress.

Tensions have been rising since Aristide's party won 2000 legislative elections that observers said were flawed. The opposition refuses to participate in new elections unless Aristide steps down.

The political crisis is expected to intensify as a vast majority of Parliament members' terms expire Monday.

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