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Concern Growing Over Political Instability in Haiti - 2004-01-08

Opponents of Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have called for several days of protests and strikes this week, to bring attention to what they describe as growing repression and a lack of economic progress in the impoverished Caribbean nation. On Wednesday, two people were killed in violent clashes in the capital and there are fears that if the violence worsens political instability could overwhelm Haiti.

The sound of gunfire in the streets of Port-au-Prince is an almost daily occurrence these days. During this demonstration, police fired over the heads of protesters on New Years Day to disperse a crowd calling for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Violence and instability are growing in Haiti. Since last September, more than 40 people have died in clashes between supporters and opponents of Mr. Aristide.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide has dominated Haitian politics over the past decade and a half. Elected president in 1990, the firebrand priest and champion of Haiti's impoverished millions, was overthrown by Haiti's military less than a year later and forced to flee for his life. Returned to power by a U.S.-led invasion in 1994, Mr. Aristide is now in the middle of his second term as President. Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Party swept national elections in 2000 and he has few political rivals. But two years before his term is set to expire there are growing calls for him to resign and call early elections.

A coalition of students, business leaders and journalists has mobilized over the past year with the common goal of forcing Haiti's president to step aside. Andre Apaid, a leading Haitian industrialist, who heads the coalition known as Group 184, says Mr. Aristide and his supporters are trying to turn Haiti into a dictatorship.

"You are not talking about a matter of a simple political difference," he said. "You are talking about the disturbing element of denying us fundamental rights and political liberties. When you obtain that level you are not talking about simple political differences anymore. In spite of trying to change it in a progressive way we have found it literally impossible."

Haiti's current political impasse dates to the 2000 elections, which Mr. Aristide won, but which international observers called flawed. The Organization of American States called on Haiti's electoral council to recalculate the vote in some Senate seats, which the government refused to do, and which led to an opposition boycott of the legislature.

Opposition to Mr. Aristide has grown dramatically with opponents saying his supporters have recruited criminal gangs to attack Aristide opponents, and have used government agencies to harass those who do not support the government. Opponents also say the Aristide government has done little to alleviate Haiti's extreme poverty.

Government officials like Leslie Voltaire, a member of Mr. Aristide's cabinet responsible for Haitians living overseas, dispute the charges, saying Mr. Aristide is no dictator and that his opponents have nothing to fear from the government.

"I do not think they should be afraid of my government because a lot of people in the opposition were in exile under the Duvalier dictatorship, and they could not speak," he said. "Now you see all the media is talking about what they want to and there is no censorship or censorship on marching, except when you march and you are not given a permit to march, which is given in every democracy. I do not think they should be afraid, this is not a dictatorship."

Mr. Voltaire says Mr. Aristide has tried to reach out to his critics but they have rebuffed his efforts, in part because he says many also supported his ouster by Haiti's military in 1991. Mr. Voltaire says his government supports a plan proposed by Haiti's Catholic Bishops to solve the crisis by creating a so-called council of "wise men" to try and mediate a compromise between the government and the opposition.

Government opponents are wary of the plan saying Mr. Aristide cannot be trusted, but diplomats in the capital who refuse to be quoted by name, say the plan, with some modifications, could offer a way out of the crisis. However, those same diplomats also warn that time is running out and if a compromise is not reached soon violence could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences for Haiti.