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Strike against government, economic austerity paralyzes Haiti

January 17, 1997

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Protesters put up burning barricades, hurled rocks at buses and threatened police in a nationwide protest intended to force the prime minister’s resignation and an end to big budget cuts.

Security guards fired on a mob that stormed a food warehouse in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, reportedly killing one person. The mob then ransacked a police station after the officers fled.

In Port-au-Prince, the capital, shops were closed, children stayed home from school and bus service was halted in the largest of a series of anti-government strikes Thursday.

The Anti-International Monetary Fund Committee called the strike a day after a man lost his right hand in the explosion of a tear-gas canister fired by police who halted a peaceful street demonstration.

More than 160 grass-roots groups joined the walkout, supporting demands that Premier Rosny Smarth resign and President Rene Preval end negotiations with international lenders, whose loan terms they blame for the country’s economic misery.

``The strike was a total success. The population has rejected the government and its economic policy,″ strike organizer Yves Sanon said.

Before dawn, a U.N. peacekeeping force helicopter patrolled the city skies, its searchlight sweeping the streets. Haitian police scoured the metropolitan area to confiscate used tires, with which protesters set up burning barricades.

Protesters in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil stoned school buses sent to pick up people walking to work, and pelted two cars carrying reporters, shattering the windshield of a car driven by an Associated Press photographer.

In the three main cities _ Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien and Gonaives _ streets were practically empty of traffic.

About 7,000 of 43,000 government workers are expected to lose their jobs over the next 18 months because of the government’s austerity measures, which have been demanded by foreign lenders. International donors finance more than 60 percent of Haiti’s budget.

The grass-roots groups, backed by many legislators, say government efforts to collect unpaid taxes, cut spending, privatize state-run enterprises and streamline the bloated bureaucracy have caused widespread unemployment and runaway inflation.

Haiti’s economy deteriorated under a corrupt dictatorship in the 1980s and was nearly ruined by international sanctions against a military regime from 1991-94. The United States sent in troops to drive out the military and restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Preval succeeded Aristide in 1996.

There are 1,600 U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, including 300 civilian police who supervise and train the Haitian police. They have no mandate to intervene in Haitian affairs.

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