By Kim Ives; Editor, Haiti Liberté
Thousands of demonstrators marched through Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on May 10 calling for President René Préval’s resignation and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return from exile in South Africa.
Parallel mobilizations took place in towns throughout Haiti, including Miragoane, Cap Haitien, Gonaives, and Jacmel.
The giant march came as Senators, mostly from the President’s party, Unity, voted 16 against two to amend Article 232 of Haiti’s 1987 Constitution, extending Préval’s mandate from Feb. 7 until May 14, 2011. Deputies had approved the change in a May 6 vote of 56 for, three against and three abstentions.
On May 10, the 48th Legislature also expired, with only one third of the Senate remaining with a mandate.
Like the drop that overflows the glass, Préval’s three month term extension seems to have finally released a flood of anger against a host of policies, including last week’s sale of the state telephone company, the maintenance of a Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) which excluded 14 parties (including Haiti’s largest, the Lavalas Family) from now postponed elections, and the 18 month “state of emergency law” that puts a foreign-led commission in charge of Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction.
Marchers also reiterated long-standing demands that include an end to the six-year-old United Nations military occupation and stronger measures to resolve widespread homelessness and hunger four months after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the capital and other nearby towns.
The Port-au-Prince demonstration was led by an emerging coalition called the Heads Together of Popular Organizations (Tet Kole Oganizasyon Popile yo), which is primarily composed of Lavalas base organizations with a smattering of formerly anti-Lavalas political personalities and alliances such as Evans Paul’s Alternative for Democracy and Progress, Serge Gilles’ social democratic Fusion, and Himmler Rébu’s Platform of Haitian Patriots (PLAPH).
Dubbed “Operation Take No Breath” (Operasyon san pran souf), Tet Kole’s mobilization aims to replace Préval with a provisional president and a Council of State similar to that which brought President Aristide’s predecessor, Ertha Pascale-Trouillot, to power 20 years ago.
“Faced with this situation of terrible suffering in which society lives today, we, grassroots organizations, civil society groups, and platforms of principled political parties have decided in unity to reject the state of emergency law, the widespread corruption, the Constitutional changes, the maintenance of the exclusionary CEP, and the extension of the presidential term,” said Tet Kole’s Paulette Joseph and Bateau Junior in a message read at the Champ de Mars’ Constitution Place. “We have decided to launch a mobilization which will continue until the complete satisfaction of our demands. We demand the immediate resignation of President Préval for betraying the trust of the people, for violating the Constitution, and for liquidating the country for foreigners. We demand the formation of a provisional government to improve the living conditions of people who were victim of the Jan. 12 disaster. We want to lay the foundations for rebuilding a better Haiti. We demand the annulment of the 18 month state of emergency law.”
Most of the demonstrators marched to the crumpled National Palace from St.
Jean Bosco, where Father Aristide used to preach before the church was burned by neo-Duvalierist thugs on Sep. 11, 1988. Feeder marches from the Belair et Carrefour Feuilles slums also joined the masses in the Champ de Mars.
Many demonstrators carried glossy posters of Aristide in the red graduation tunic he wore when receiving his South African doctoral degree in April 2007, or tattered newsprint photos of him carefully cut from the cover of the news weekly Haiti Liberté.
“Down with Préval! Down with occupation! Down with exclusionary elections!
Down with neoliberal policies!” the demonstrators chanted during the three hour march.
Near the Palace, Haitian riot police fired bullets and teargas at the demonstrators. Witnesses say that policemen beat several demonstrators including Makenson Pierre and Robenson Rémy, two musicians with the « Easy Rara » street band whose drums and horns motivated marchers.
Haitian police and UN soldiers arrested four demonstrators, and unconfirmed reports say several protestors were wounded.
Meanwhile, about 60 miles west in Miragoane and north in Gonaives, hundreds of people, mostly Lavalas partisans, in both cities also demonstrated with the same demands as the capital.
In the northern city of Cap Haitien, hundreds of residents held an action of banging pots and pans to signal unhappiness with Préval’s food policies.
In the southeastern city of Jacmel, the Alternative Movement for Haiti’s Decentralization and Reconstruction (MADREH) held a sit-in with hundreds in front of the central government’s office to demand Préval’s resignation.
Many eyebrows have been raised at the sight of 2004 coup supporters like “student” leader Hervé Saintilus, perennial politician Turneb Delpé, and Democratic Convergence leaders like Paul, Gilles and Rébu marching alongside Lavalas partisans holding aloft posters of Aristide’s smiling face.
“One of our principal demands is that the government provide former President Aristide with a passport so he can return to his country,” Delpé declared.
But many in Haiti’s democracy movement fear that right-wing politicians are feigning support for Lavalas demands and will try to hijack the mass mobilization to push Préval from power and install an even more reactionary government.
“We are organizing now to provide leadership to this mass movement which is forming,” Evans Paul said on Radio Tropical.
But Yves Pierre-Louis, a leader with the National Platform of Base Organizations and State Victims (PLONBAVIL), one of Tet Kole’s key components, says that Lavalas and progressive militants are confident they will keep control of the movement.
“We are very aware of the dangers posed by allowing former putschists into our alliance and demonstrations, and we talk about it all the time,” he said. “But right now, Préval has gone too far in selling out the country and trampling the Constitution. He must be stopped. This requires a broad coalition, but we are not diluting our demands. Some politicians, who have been our opponents, are embracing our demands, or at least pretending to.
Whatever the case, the unity and consciousness of the progressive forces in this mobilization are strong, and we will prevail.”
Préval proposed Article 232’s amendment as it has become clear that presidential and parliamentary elections are unlikely to be held by November, especially if he refuses to reconstitute the CEP. “I cannot just leave while an unfinished [electoral] process is underway,” Préval said in a May 6 press conference.
The new Article 232 is worded so that Préval can leave office anytime between Feb. 7 and May 14, 2011.
Due to difficulties in organizing elections after the Feb. 29, 2004 coup d’état against Aristide, Préval was not elected until Feb. 7, 2006, the date when a new president should have been inaugurated according to the Constitution. Préval began his five-year term on May 14, 2006.