Haitians took to the streets in front of the Presidential Palace today calling for President Rene Preval to step down, and for a new government to take control, but were faced with riot police and tear gas canisters. The protests began because, according to the constitution here, today (February 7th) is the day that Preval should give up his presidency, and a new leader should be sworn in. Because the elections have been delayed and the second-round run-off isn’t scheduled until March 20th, Preval has announced that he will stay until May to make sure the transition goes well. This did not make people happy…
The constitution in Haiti allows for a presidential term to last for five years to the day, and five years ago Preval was supposed to be sworn in on February 7th, 2006. But because there was a delay, Preval was actually sworn in on May 14th, which is the day that he has announced as his new last day as president.
Protesters clashed with Haitian police with force, throwing rocks, building barricades and lighting fires. Haitian police responded in kind, and showered tear gas canisters down on the protesters. Unfortunately, the majority of them were aimed in the wrong direction (or hit their targets…depends on how you look at it), and landed in the middle of the tent camp in Champ d’ Mars, where thousands of people are still living after losing their homes in the earthquake.
An older woman (not pictured) holding a tear gas canister ran to me and grabbed my arm, “Come!” she yelled in Kreyol, “You have to look back here, they shot at my home!” I following the woman back to her make-shift home-made of tarps and corrugated steel, and she pointed out all the places where the tear gas had rained down into the camp. All around were people rubbing at their eyes, and children screaming and yelling. A harsh stinging haze lingered in the air, burning your eyes and stinging your throat.
The tear gas just angered the protesters more, who continued to throw rocks in the direction of the police. While the protest began with political motivations, it quickly became a fight to protect their homes, and their families, from the tear gas that had now filled the tent camp. The protesters began working in earnest to block the roads and stop traffic from entering, but a team of Haitian police officers armed with assault rifles and revolvers barreled towards the crowd, exited the car, and sprinted towards the protesters firing round after round into the air.
The protesters and the crowds dispersed into the camps, and the policed followed, marching through the tents and makeshifts shelters as if they were hunting down an enemy.
In the end they arrested no one, and after standing guard for about 15 minutes they piled into their SUV and sped away. The crowds died down, the barricades were pulled away, and a calm fell over the camp.
The reality is that the people have a reason to be upset, Preval has been a rather stagnant president over the past year, and he is largely seen as the reason why the November elections were marred by fraud. Many Haitians call the Presidential Palace the devil’s house, and Preval the devil, and having him stay in power for another three months is hard for them to swallow (especially as they live in the shadow of the still collapsed Palace).
On the flip side, it does make sense to have him stay while the electoral process is seen through. A transitional government would take time, and would leave the country in a state of limbo. Even the US government has said they think Preval staying is a good idea. “The United States believes that a peaceful and orderly transition between President Preval and his elected successor is important for Haiti,” Jon Piechowski, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, told the AP (Article HERE).
But unfortunately, the police’s reaction to the protesters has left many with only another reason to fight. Time and again we go to these protests and tear gas canisters and rubber bullets are shot into tent camps or neighborhoods, hurting innocent people and leaving a resentment that results in more fighting. These protests will likely continue for the coming weeks, if not months, until Preval has stepped down. But in reality, they could continue forever if the police and UN forces fail to show some restraint, and as a result cause innocent people to be victims of their continuing carelessness.