Haiti celebrates Constitution Day


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti More than 1,000 supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched through the streets Thursday to celebrate Haiti’s Constitution Day and express their scorn for the opposition, which has refused to recognize Aristide’s government.

The president urged peace in a national radio address early in the day, offering to his opponents “a truce, that can help us come more quickly to brotherly dialogue and a political agreement.”

Many marchers shouted “Down with the opposition!” as they filed into a seaside soccer stadium in the capital of Port-au-Prince for ceremonies marking the 14th anniversary of the current Haitian constitution, the 22nd constitution in the country’s troubled history.

The march was free of violence, however, contrasting with the preceding weeks of political unrest in the desperately poor Caribbean nation. The crowd dispersed peacefully after the ceremonies.

Since March 14, when Aristide supporters disrupted a peaceful opposition demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Organization of American States, political violence has left three dead and scores wounded across the country.

“The celebration of this anniversary should take place with serenity,” Aristide said in his radio address.

Some marchers wore grotesque masks ridiculing top opposition figures and shirts bearing a photo of Aristide, who has denounced as illegal the opposition’s “alternative government” headed by lawyer and school teacher Gerard Gorgue.

Last Saturday, Gourgue and several other opposition leaders went into hiding, saying they feared for their lives. Two Cabinet ministers have called for their arrests.

“The time is no longer for violence but for peace, reflection, union, and national reconciliation,” Gourgue said, in a declaration on Wednesday issued by the opposition.

Grouped in a 15-party coalition called Convergence, the opposition had also planned on holding Constitution Day demonstrations, but canceled them because of security concerns.

The constitution was ratified by a popular vote in 1987 after decades of military rule.

“Today, there is no cause for rejoicing. The constitution is in its painful death throes,” said law professor and Convergence supporter Myrlande Manigat, whose husband, former President Leslie Manigat, was ousted by the army in 1988.

Convergence refuses to acknowledge Aristide’s legitimacy, saying the clean sweep of his Lavalas Family party in local and legislative elections last year was unconstitutional.

The Organization of American States agreed 10 Senate races should have gone to runoffs according to the constitution, and as a result millions of dollars of international aid to Haiti has been suspended.