Haiti: quake anniversary ceremonies protested

Thousands of Haitians turned out for religious ceremonies in Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country on Jan. 12 to mark the one-year anniversary of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled much of the capital and the surrounding area. Cardinal Robert Sarah, sent by Pope Benedict XVI, joined the papal nuncio and Haitian bishops and priests in a special mass at the ruins of the city’s Catholic cathedral. Protestants held a service at the Champ-de-Mars park, across from the shattered National Palace, while Vodou followers participated in a ceremony of remembrance at the National Bureau of Ethnology.

The death toll from the earthquake has generally been estimated at 220,000 to 250,000, but on the anniversary Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive announced that the official estimate had risen to 316,000. Some 206,000 victims were reportedly buried just in the mass graves at Saint-Christophe (Titanyen) north of the capital. (Agence Haïtienne de Presse, Haiti, Jan. 12)

Not all the anniversary ceremonies went smoothly. The government planned an event to mark the start of an ambitious housing project supposed to provide some 3,000-4,000 apartments in the impoverished Fort National neighborhood near the center of Port-au-Prince. The event was called off after a group of unidentified persons threw stones and an apparently unrelated group of about 20 local residents carrying signs occupied the site. Police and members of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), an international police and military operation, intervened, but there were no reports of injuries. The protesters said they didn’t oppose reconstruction but were demanding greater transparency. “We want explanations, we want to know how the state expects to help people who well before Jan. 12 [2010] lived in subhuman conditions,” a protester explained to a MINUSTAH agent, who took notes. “This is unacceptable now in the 21st century.” (AlterPresse, Haiti, Jan. 12)

A memorial at the Applied Linguistics Faculty of the State University of Haiti (UEH) for more than 150 students and faculty lost in the quake was disrupted by dozens of protesters, mostly from the UEH Human Sciences Faculty (FASCH), demanding justice for sociology professor Jean Anil Louis-Juste. A well-known radical, Louis-Juste was shot dead in broad daylight in downtown Port-au-Prince just a few hours before the earthquake. The FASCH students were protesting the lack of progress in the murder investigation and what they said was UEH rector Jean Vernet Henry’s failure to honor Louis-Juste on the Jan. 12 anniversary. (Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Jan. 12)

In other news, on Jan. 13 Organization of American States (OAS) representatives in Haiti sent President René Préval a report by OAS technical experts on the Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections. The report recommended that presidential candidates Myrlande Manigat and Michel Martelly (the popular singer known as “Sweet Mickey”) should be the two candidates in a runoff election originally scheduled for Jan. 16. Martelly would replace Préval’s designated candidate (and future son-in-law), Jude Célestin, who was originally assigned second place. One person was killed on Jan. 14 during street demonstrations against the OAS recommendations, and 14 people were arrested; they were released without explanation the same day. The detainees had been carrying a large amount of money in their vehicles, along with old tires and pamphlets proclaiming Célestin the victor; witnesses said they had been shooting guns and building barricades. (AlterPresse, Jan. 14; Radio Kiskeya, Jan. 15)

Adding to the tensions, former “president for life” Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier (1971-1986) arrived in Port-au-Prince on an Air France flight at about 5 pm on Jan. 16, apparently without warning, after nearly 25 years of exile in France. Several hundred supporters and opponents gathered at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport as the news spread. The ex-dictator stayed at the airport for about three hours and then was driven away in a vehicle under heavy escort by Haitian police and MINUSTAH agents. (AlterPresse, Jan. 17)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 16.

See our last post on Haiti.