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Haiti Marks Napoleon Battle Bicentennial

November 18, 2003

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) _ President Jean-Bertrand Aristide urged Haitians to overcome economic bondage as they marked Tuesday’s bicentennial of a decisive victory over Napoleon’s troops that led to the world’s first successful slave rebellion.

Aristide, whose speech was peppered with Creole proverbs and punctuated by shouts of ``Freedom or Death!,″ said Haitians need to fight again as they once did to overcome ``the conspiracy″ of rich nations over poor ones.

``After 200 years of economic violence, the traces of slavery are still here,″ Aristide told more than 10,000 people waving flags and dancing to thumping ``racine,″ or roots music.

``Poverty today is the result of a 200-year plot. Whether it be slavery or embargo, it’s the same plot. You are victims. I am a victim,″ he said on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Vertieres, which led to the creation of the world’s first black republic.

The crowd chanted, ``We won’t serve the masters anymore, we’ll serve the people!″

Absent were ambassadors from France, the United States and the European Union, who stayed away to protest the government’s failure to stop Aristide partisans from blocking a demonstration in the capital on Friday by civic groups demanding government reforms.

``The refusal of state authorities to let a peaceful demonstration take place has cast a shadow on the bicentennial celebrations,″ U.S. Ambassador James Foley said Monday.

Diplomats from the Vatican, the Organization of American States and Taiwan joined Haitians from all over the country who crowded Cap-Haitien to celebrate and hear from the embattled Aristide, who’s struggling to liberate the nation of 8 million from worsening poverty and despair while his opponents call for his downfall.

More than half the work force among Haiti’s 8 million people is unemployed. At least half the population is malnourished.

``I don’t have any reason or money to celebrate,″ said Richard Jean, a 34-year-old tailor who scrapes by on $15 a month in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s northern port and second-largest city.

Marlene Antoine, a 36-year-old street sweeper, is grateful nevertheless.

``I’m thankful for Vertieres,″ she said, sweeping the mud away from a walkway to the battle site outside Cap-Haitien. Instead of being enslaved, ``Now I’m able to send my kids to school.″

Hopes have waned that Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected president in 1990, would bring new life to a one-time paradise despoiled by decades of power-hungry dictators.

Aristide’s government has overseen flawed legislative elections that have led to a two-year impasse with a disparate opposition coalition. International aid has dried up as donors demand reforms.

Now opponents say Aristide, who remains the country’s most popular leader, is becoming a dictator.

Haiti is a shell of what it was two centuries ago when its rich alluvial plains and slave labor made it the wealthiest colony in the New World.

That prosperity impelled Napoleon Bonaparte to order 15,000 troops to oust Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who rallied blacks. The French eventually captured Louverture and imprisoned him in a bleak mountain cell on the French-Swiss border, where he died.

Shortly afterward, however, French troops, weakened by yellow fever, surrendered to Haitian forces.

Vertieres has since become a celebrated victory of black over white, poor over privileged.

``Vertieres: A Battle for the Black Race″ declared banners that crisscrossed the narrow streets of Cap-Haitien, a city of brightly painted colonial houses with iron doors.

But the country is plagued by anti-government protests that have intensified in the past two months, with at least 15 killed and scores wounded in clashes between Aristide supporters and opponents and in police raids.

``With or without Aristide, the country can’t take much more before it starts to collapse,″ said artist Reginald Boissant, 39.

Aristide, a former slum priest, came to power urging the poor to overthrow the U.S.-backed Duvalier family dictatorship. Aristide was ousted in a coup within months of being elected but returned to power by a U.S. invasion in 1994.

It was the third invasion by the United States since Haiti’s independence, which Washington refused to recognize for decades while slavery continued in the South.

``We got out of the blockade then,″ Aristide said. ``Now there’s another one,″ he said of the aid suspensions, which he calls economic sanctions.

``It’s the same conspiracy″ to keep black and poor people down, Aristide said. ``We won that victory. We can walk toward another victory.″

The United States has cut all direct assistance to the Haitian government but channels $70 million in humanitarian aid to private organizations.

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