Police fired tear gas outside the ruins of Haiti’s national palace to control 2,000 demonstrators calling for President Rene Preval’s resignation in the largest political protest since the January 12 earthquake.
Lorries filled with riot police rolled behind the protesters as they jogged past tarpaulins and shanties yesterday, shouting insults at Mr Preval, who has been criticised for his low profile following the quake and for allegedly using the destruction as a pretext to stay in office beyond his term.
“He is profiting from this disaster in order to stay in power,” said Herve Santilus, 39, a sociologist who was laid off a few weeks after the magnitude-7 quake struck and has not been able to find work since.
Many demonstrators identified themselves as supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was exiled to Africa aboard a US plane during a 2004 rebellion.
Protesters marched to Port-au-Prince’s national mall following speaker trucks that trumpeted calls for Mr Aristide’s return.
At several points the protest encountered trouble. In the narrow passages of the Bel-Air slum, counter-protesters threw rocks at the passing crowd. At least twice, shotgun blasts rang out from cracked and collapsed buildings, but it was not clear who fired them. At least one man was wounded by a bullet, police said.
Students supporting the protest threw rocks at passing United Nations vehicles, only to be choked into submission by volleys of police-fired tear gas.
Police also arrested at least seven people on charges of robbing people in the mob. A US Army helicopter circled overhead, centring on areas where the crowd was heaviest.
It was the strongest showing of opposition to the Haitian leader since the quake, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 to 300,000 people. The insults were deep and vulgar, with some about Mr Preval’s mother and other chants that the first lady belonged “under the rubble”.
Mr Preval announced last week that he would stay in office up to three months past the end of his term next February 7 if the presidential election was delayed.
Officials are struggling to hold the election as planned this autumn. The quake destroyed the election agency’s headquarters and records and killed or displaced about 1.6 million voters.
At a news conference last week, Mr Preval assured the public that he would leave office by May 14 2011 – exactly five years after his delayed 2006 inauguration.
“I want to establish stability in this country,” he said.
As the protest wound down, a quorum of the 29-member senate voted to extend Mr Preval’s term. The 99-seat lower chamber approved the measure late last week.
In the absence of a fully functioning parliament, the country’s recovery will be directed mostly by a commission headed by former US president Bill Clinton and prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
It will oversee £6.7 billion in foreign reconstruction money pledged at a March conference – a sum 40% larger than Haiti’s entire gross domestic product.
Discontent over government policy and the often unbearable smell and squalor in makeshift camps is on the rise, with scattered thunderstorms yesterday drenching hundreds of thousands of people.
A few thousand – only a fraction – of the homeless have been relocated to remote sites on the capital’s periphery managed by international aid groups.
Small bands of protesters were reported in the southern cities of Jacmel, Miragoane and Nippes, north-western Gonaives and the northern port city of Cap-Haitien.