Haiti protest signals political tension

2012-03-01 10:18

Port-au-Prince - Several thousand supporters of two-time president Jean-Bertrand Aristide filled the streets of Haiti's capital on Wednesday on the eighth anniversary of his ouster, accusing the country's current leader of not doing enough to improve their lives.

It was the largest demonstration against President Michel Martelly since he took office in May, and pointed to mounting political strife between the president and his critics as the country struggles to rebuild from the 2010 earthquake.

The size of the crowd also hinted at the level of support for Aristide, a former slum priest turned politician who still wields influence since returning to Haiti last year after seven years of exile in South Africa.

"Martelly said he would bring change; instead he's bringing division," protester Rene Augustin said with Haiti's red-and-blue flag wrapped around his head.

The demonstrators also called for the departure of Haiti's UN peacekeeping mission.

The protest came at a time when the mood in the country feels precarious and abounds with tension.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Garry Conille suddenly resigned from his post after just four months on the job because of infighting with Martelly. Conille, who previously worked as an aide to former US President Bill Clinton in his role as the UN special envoy to Haiti, is staying on as the country's No 2 government official until legislators ratify a successor, a process that could take weeks and could prove tricky with an opposition-controlled Parliament.

Uneasy relations

Conille's abrupt resignation prompted Western diplomats, already vexed over the uneasy relations among government officials, to call for a swift replacement.

The administration picked Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Lamothe late on Wednesday as its nominee for prime minister, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the information.

Lamothe, a 39-year-old former businessman who specialised in telecommunications before turning to politics, is co-chairman of an economic advisory board along with Clinton.

Political agitation has been increasing.

Two days ago, a lawyer who claimed to represent Aristide told a local radio station that the government was preparing to investigate the former president on criminal charges. Haiti's justice minister denied that, and Aristide's attorney in Miami said he did not know the man who made the announcement.

But the claim was enough to put Aristide supporters on edge.

"We're telling Martelly to be careful," said Jean-Claude Jeanty, a protester. "If the government plans to arrest him, we're going to burn the country down."

The demonstration began in front of the downtown parish where Aristide once preached as a priest. Protesters then marched through the shanty strongholds that supported Aristide and sang about how they would not betray the ex-president.

There were a few incidents in which rocks and bottles were thrown at the demonstrators and they retaliated by doing the same. A few people suffered minor injuries.

Heavy police presence

Protesters also challenged Martelly, a globe-trotting musician before he entered politics, to present his passport to several senators who believe that he holds dual citizenship, which would bar him from office.

The government has denied Martelly holds double nationality, but he has angered his opponents further by saying he is under no obligation to show his travel documents.

When protesters passed in front of the National Palace, they directed their anger toward Martelly and chanted: "We know you're not Haitian. You need to bring your passport. If you're not Haitian, turn in your passport."

The demonstration ended in front of Parliament amid a heavy police presence as lawmakers critical of Martelly stood on carnival trucks and made speeches.

"President Martelly doesn't respect any institutions," lawmaker Arnel Belizaire told The Associated Press. "He thinks running the country is like running a show."

- AP

Read more on:    jean-bertrand aristide  |  michel martelly  |  haiti

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