Haiti: thousands march for Aristide

From AP, July 15:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Thousands of demonstrators demanding the return of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched to Haiti’s National Palace on Saturday, pushing past riot police in a dramatic show of support for the exiled former leader.

Chants of “Aristide or death!” and “Aristide’s blood is our blood!” rang out as a crush of demonstrators pressed against a line of national police, who eventually allowed some 3,000 protesters to fill the street outside the palace.

The march coincided with Aristide’s 53rd birthday and marked the largest display of support in months for the deposed leader, who fled Haiti in February 2004 amid a violent uprising and has been living in South Africa.

Helmeted police wielding batons and riot shields formed a human chain to keep protesters from approaching the whitewashed National Palace, President Rene Preval’s official residence, which was guarded by dozens of U.N. peacekeepers in armored cars.

Police pushed back several protesters but the confrontation did not escalate to violence. Still, the show of force prompted many to turn back, fearful of a clash.

“If there’s blood it will be on your hands!” a man yelled at police before they yielded.

“We voted for Preval on the condition that he bring back Aristide. That’s the will of the people,” said Bruce Pierre Richard, 21.

Preval, a champion of Haiti’s poor who took power in May, has said Haiti’s constitution allows Aristide to return but has not said whether he would welcome him home. Preval was prime minister under Aristide but the two grew apart and Preval has said little since his election about his former political mentor, frustrating Aristide supporters.

The United States has warned Aristide’s return could destabilize the Caribbean country.

“The international community doesn’t want Aristide to come back, so they’re pressuring Preval to keep him out,” said demonstrator Harold Lafaliese, 40.

The protest came amid a surge of bloodshed that U.N. officials say is aimed at undermining Preval’s new government.

Bloodshed which is receiving little media coverage outside Haiti. From the Haitian news agency AHP, July 7:

Port-au-Prince, July 7, 2006 (AHP); Some 20 people were killed and several others injured by gunfire and stabbing over the past 72 hours during attacks launched by armed men belonging to the so-called “Ti Manchèt Army” (Small Machete Army) in the populist districts of Grand’Ravine and Ti Bwa in southern Port-au-Prince.

Several homes were also set on fire.

According to residents who were fleeing the region this Friday, the men of the Ti Manchèt Army began their killing spree after they accused residents of Grand’Ravine of having killed a member of their band.

This is the very same Ti Manchèt Army formed under the interim regime of Gérard Latortue that carried out a massacre of more than 10 people who were attending a soccer game sponsored by USAID in August 2005 in the populist quarter of Grand’ Ravine.

These individuals, who operated in several populist neighborhoods side by side with officers of the Haitian National Police, had accused the victims of the massacre at that time of being supporters of the President-in-Exile, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

See our last post on Haiti.

  1. More details
    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 16:

    Haitian gang members reportedly killed 21 civilians, including three women and four children, the night of July 6-7 in Martissant, a suburb of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Witnesses said the members of two gangs based in Martissant–Lame Ti Manchet (“Army of the Little Machetes”) and a gang from the Ti Bwa (“Little Wood”) neighborhood–broke into the victims’ homes in the Grand-Ravine area, shot them one by one, and then set the houses on fire. According to one resident, there had been violent acts between rival gangs for several weeks, but the violence intensified the afternoon of July 6 when gang members from Grand-Ravine killed three people in Martissant 7–a street vendor, a charcoal seller and a young girl taken from her home. Members of the Lame Ti Manchet and the Ti Bwa gang then massacred the Grand-Ravine residents in revenge.

    Coming after months of relative calm following the February national elections, the killings prompted fears of renewed violence. President Rene Preval insisted the violence was not politically motivated. “Political safety has been largely achieved,” Preval said a week after the events. “The insecurity which currently prevails, in my opinion, is banditism related to misery, drugs and the release of certain gangsters” from prison. But Haitian officials and officials from the United Nations (UN) say it may have been in part an attempt to destabilize Preval’s government. “I don’t believe it was a spontaneous attack,” said Desmond Molloy, head of the UN disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program in Haiti. “This massacre creates an atmosphere of fear, and when people are afraid, it’s very hard to establish any degree of stability.”

    The Lame Ti Manchet, which opposed former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was accused of murdering about 10 people in Grand-Ravine in August 2005, under the interim regime that followed Aristide’s ouster in February 2004. The Grand-Ravine gang is associated with Aristide’s Lavalas Family (FL). (Haiti Support Group News Briefs, July 6 from Le Nouvelliste, July 14 from AP; Agence Haitienne de Presse July 12;
    The Observer, UK, July 14)

    As many as 30,000 people demonstrated in downtown Port-au-Prince on July 15 to mark Aristide’s 53rd birthday and to demand his return and the release of political prisoners. Protesters danced to drums, chanted “Aristide is king” and sang happy birthday to the former president, who is living in South Africa. (Reuters July 16)