- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Thousands of supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide toppled a fence around the presidential palace and spilled onto its lawn yesterday, cheering their embattled leader as the country celebrated a bittersweet anniversary marking 200 years of independence from France.

The Aristide supporters waved Haitian flags, jumped into the air and shouted, “Aristide is king.” Riot police blocked the crowd from reaching the palace building.

“This is a sacred day for us. It’s the most sacred day of all,” said Louis Larieux, a 40-year-old among those who leveled the metal fence. “We may be the poorest nation in the Americas, but we’re the bravest.”

About 10,000 Haitians gathered at the palace hours after celebrating New Year’s Day with fireworks, gunshots and drums pulsing in the darkness.

More than a dozen foreign delegations, civil rights activists and actors, including Danny Glover, were attending the bash. Also attending was South African President Thabo Mbeki.

“We celebrate the Haitian revolution because it dealt 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,” Mr. Mbeki told the crowd.

Outside the palace, dozens of bare-chested men painted with gold and wearing cutoff pants to symbolize slavery held conch shells, used in ceremonies to call for help from the spirits.

But a gloomy air hung over much of the impoverished nation as islanders questioned whether Mr. Aristide could guide Haiti out of its poverty, political turmoil and social unrest.

Many world leaders pulled out of the celebrations, and entertainers boycotted state events yesterday. Some of the nation’s 8 million people are asking how much more suffering they must endure before their ancestors’ triumph on Jan. 1, 1804, can be realized.

“We come from a country with a very rich history, but we are poor in so many other ways,” says Pierre Jean-Joseph, a 32-year-old artist. “Happiness is relative.”

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