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2 janvier 2004

GONAIVES, Haiti (Reuters) - President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marked Haiti’s bicentennial on Thursday with promises to improve the lot of his people, but celebrations were marred by sporadic demonstrations against his government.

Aristide, once a popular hero of a fledgling democracy but now locked in a dispute with political opponents, told a crowd outside the National Palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince, that he would work to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and sickness in the Caribbean nation of 8 million people.

Local media reported demonstrations against him in various parts of the country in which at least eight people were injured. No further details were immediately available.

Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, became the first black republic when it shook off slavery and declared independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804.

Its history has been plagued by violence and, in recent times, by tensions between Aristide and his political opponents, who accuse him of failing to live up to promises of installing democracy in the poorest country in the Americas.

Bicentennial celebrations began in the center of Port-au-Prince on Wednesday and continued into Thursday morning with the rally in front of the National Palace.

At one point, a crowd pressing up against a gate at the palace pushed it down and several people were injured, local media said.

« The first black republic of the world is and remains the epicenter of liberty for blacks, » Aristide told the crowd in a speech that focused on his government’s efforts to improve social and economic conditions.

Haiti has an unemployment rate of more than 70 percent, an average income of less than $1 a day and an average life expectancy of 50 years.

INSPIRATION TO WORLD

Guests at the official celebrations included South African President Thabo Mbeki, who told the crowd Haiti’s slave revolt had inspired the world.

The successful uprising delivered a « deadly blow to the slave traders who had scoured the coasts of West and East Africa for slaves and ruined the lives of millions of Africans, » Mbeki said.

But some Aristide opponents said the bicentennial was best marked by protesting against the government. In one part of the capital, police dispersed an anti-Aristide demonstration using tear gas and firing in the air, local media said. Radio Vision 2000 reported that six people had gunshot wounds.

The radio reported anti-government protests in the towns of Jacmel, Moragoane and Gros Morne. The radio said two people, including a police officer, were injured in Gros Morne.

In the afternoon, Aristide traveled from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, home of Haiti’s independence, but now a hotbed of political unrest.

During Thursday morning, police searched for and exchanged gunfire with anti-Aristide militants.

Thousands of people gathered in Gonaives to hear him speak in the afternoon, wearing government-issued shirts decorated with portraits of the former Roman Catholic priest who was elected in Haiti’s first free elections on a tide of popular support in 1990. Aristide was soon ousted in a military coup.

After his return from exile three years later, with the assistance of U.S.-led troops, Aristide’s popularity began to wane. His party won parliamentary elections in 2000 and he was re-elected later that year, but opposition leaders questioned the legitimacy of both elections.

In recent months, thousands have taken to the streets almost daily to protest against Aristide, accusing his government of mismanagement and corruption. Several dozen people have died in political violence since mid-September.


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