Pro-Aristide Forces Attack Opposition Marchers in Haiti
Fearful of further violence, organizers halt a peaceful rally in the capital for the second time in four days. Some fear that civil war looms.
By Carol J. Williams
Times Staff Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Impassioned government loyalists hurled rocks
from atop the national television station onto opposition demonstrators
they tried to march into the center of Haiti's capital, sparking fights and police gunfire in another display of the deep divisions some here said signal a looming civil
Sunday's march from the hilltop suburb of Petionville into the poor
and hostile neighborhoods of central Port-au-Prince was a nervous and frequently
Members of gangs backing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sporadically
rushed from the sidewalks, scattering frightened demonstrators until the
fearful of further violence, called off the march.
It was the second time since a bloody uprising by anti-Aristide rebels
began Feb. 5 in the city of Gonaives that the president's mainstream political
tried to take their grievances to the streets, only to be attacked.
A rally planned Thursday was crushed before it started when pro-Aristide
gang members erected barricades throughout Port-au-Prince, set fire to
and stoned the few people who dared try to march.
In contrast to Thursday's confrontations, when police stood idly by,
on Sunday officers in riot gear chased down and detained several gang members
the procession until it reached the TV station.
Police had tried to steer the marchers away from the site, a stronghold
of Aristide's Lavalas Party, but ardent students within the crowd insisted
on following their
planned route. Police gave up defending them once the gang members, or so-called chimeres — Creole for "monsters" — began throwing rocks and chanting,
"Aristide for life!"
"We are calling off the march because we, as the organizers, do not
want to be accused of allowing it to become violent," Evans Paul, a leader
of the Group of 184
civil society movement, announced to journalists.
Resentment of Aristide and his party has been mounting since reputedly
fraudulent elections in 2000, which encouraged international donors to
cut aid, worsening
Haiti's economic crisis. Opponents want Aristide to step down and make way for a new government.
After meeting Friday with other Western Hemisphere leaders to discuss
the Haitian crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued a vague
appeal to Aristide
to "reach out to the opposition, to make sure that thugs are not allowed to break up peaceful demonstrations."
Police made an effort to protect the marchers along the route, but pro-Aristide
groups had set up burning barricades at Place Jeremie, the intended end
point in the
heart of the capital. Many in the opposition crowd feared walking into a trap if they continued, and heeded organizers' advice to go home.
The march began with just a few people, but as it moved along the 5-mile
route it picked up hundreds of supporters who lined the streets, listening
to radios or
conferring via cellular phone to check on security before joining in. By the time it reached the TV station, more than 1,000 people were chanting denunciations of
Aristide and hoisting placards calling on the nation's patron saint to "Save Haiti."
Others, however, thought it was too risky to participate.
"I won't go out today. There are too few police, and the chimeres can
easily attack us," said Maud Stocker, a grocery store owner who stood timidly
on the fringes
of Place Boyer, watching other opposition supporters gather. "I've gone on every other demonstration, but now there is so much tension in the air. The country is
going toward anarchy."
Sunday's relatively small turnout for Aristide's opponents suggested
that the president and his supporters had been successful in cowing his
critics by making violence
the price of airing their opinions.
That reality appears to be driving new divisions among opposition supporters.
Most are still committed to remaining peaceful, even if that means staying
others, mostly students, say it's time to fight.
"I started out a pacifist, but now I want to go to Gonaives," said Berny
Leveque, a 29-year-old communications student. "Peaceful marches have gotten
because Aristide knows only force. Violence provokes violence. You have to do something."
Andre Apaid, a Group of 184 leader, insisted that the Democratic Platform
— an umbrella group uniting all mainstream opposition forces — remains
violence and has dissociated itself from the armed rebels in Gonaives, whose uprising has led to about 50 deaths.
Most of Aristide's political opponents have reacted to the suppressed marches with frustration and a sense of helplessness.
"The Platform wants to be peaceful, but we will never get rid of Aristide
by marching. He has distributed weapons to his partisans, and we are headed
for civil war,"
said Carmelle Jean-Marie, a 43-year-old economist who works in Cuba. "I don't have a gun. I don't even know how to use one."