The Miami Herald
Mon, Feb. 16, 2004

Violence mars protest in Haiti; carnival joy dampened

An anti-Aristide march in the Haitian capital is largely peaceful, but violence mars its close, and the country's strife takes much of the fun out of the carnival in Jacmel.


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Yet another demonstration against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ended in violence Sunday while mounting unrest kept revelers away from Haiti's traditional Jacmel carnival.

The largely peaceful protest in Port-au-Prince turned violent after thugs pelted demonstrators with rocks, and some marchers, saying they feared for their safety, tried to deviate from the agreed upon route. The demonstrators said sticking to the route would have placed them in danger from Aristide partisans waiting up ahead.

Police blocked the marchers' attempt to veer off course, instead telling them to go another way.

Police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the marchers.

Some of the anti-Aristide demonstrators, mostly young men and women, threw rocks at police and blocked streets with car bodies, boulders and just about anything they could drag into the street.

The march drew fewer demonstrators than previous protests. Protesters complained that police intentionally blocked roads, set up checkpoints and kept some of them from reaching the march's starting point in an effort to limit participation.

When the marchers finally set off from Petionville through Delmas to Port-au-Prince, the demonstration was peaceful, even subdued, with no incidents.

About 50 young people, several of whom identified themselves as current or former university students, ran up a side street with police vehicles in pursuit. The students rolled boulders onto the street to slow police.

As officers stopped to clear the road, the students continued running and packed into tap-taps, customized trucks that are Haiti's main mode of public transportation.


It was the first demonstration to get off the ground since armed thugs attacked and burned police stations in cities north of the capital. Gonaives and St. Marc were wrested from the government as the rebels shot, burned and looted their way through cities and villages. Paramilitary and army exiles returned to the country to join forces with the militants.

Another protest planned for Thursday was abruptly aborted after groups professing to be Aristide backers blocked roads with burning tires and threw rocks at massing demonstrators. On that day police did little or nothing to stop the Aristide supporters.

''What's happening right now is a general uprising,'' said Victor Boulos, 52, a handicraft importer and exporter who lives in Petionville. ``People are just tired of being oppressed. We need some real changes. We're very sad about it. That's not the Haiti we want.''

Daniel Supplice, 53, a sociology professor, said he doesn't have anything personal against Aristide but sees the decline the country has taken since Aristide entered the National Palace.

''I don't hate him, I don't love him, but there's one thing I know -- the country is in the worst situation it's ever been, not only economically, but socially,'' Supplice said.

Meanwhile, in the southern seaport city of Jacmel, the annual carnival kicked off without the feared violence, though turnout was disappointingly low.

''When there wasn't so much political turmoil, people used to fly in from all over the place,'' said Dr. Jean-Elie Gilles, 40, a Haitian-American professor living in Jacmel on sabbatical.

Jacmel, billed as the Ibiza of the Caribbean and the Riviera of Haiti in tourist guides, is known for taking pride in avoiding the political strife that jars the rest of the country.

The carnival normally brings tens of thousands of paradegoers, some of them donning papier-mché masks of tigers, lions and other animals.

But this year's festival was different: the private sector, which traditionally funds most of the event and whose base makes up the opposition coalition Group 184, boycotted and only a few thousand people attended.


''The private sector doesn't want to take the responsibility of dancing on the stomach of the students,'' said Jacques Khawly, president of the Chamber of Commerce for southeast Haiti. ``The private sector is ashamed to participate in the carnival.''

The move prompted the government and a state-run bank to put up funding and rely on voluntary contributions. Government parade organizers said the decision was unfortunate.

Max St. Joy, whose Port-au-Prince band Diginice played on a stage Sunday, took a nonpartisan view to the unusually few people in the streets: ``Due to the political situation, I don't think people will turn out. They're afraid. They don't know what will happen.''