PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Police fired tear gas outside the ruins of Haiti’s national palace Monday to control 2,000 demonstrators calling for President Rene Preval’s resignation in the largest political protest since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Trucks filled with riot police rolled behind the protesters as they jogged past tarps and shanties shouting insults at Preval, who has been criticized for his low profile following the quake and for allegedly using the destruction as a pretext to stay in office beyond his term.
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“He is profiting from this disaster in order to stay in power,” said Herve Santilus, 39, a sociologist who was laid off a few weeks after the magnitude-7 quake struck and has not been able to find work since.
Many demonstrators identified themselves as supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was exiled to Africa aboard a U.S. plane during a 2004 rebellion. Protesters marched to the national mall following speaker trucks that trumpeted calls for Aristide’s return.
At several points the protest encountered trouble: In the narrow passages of the Bel-Air slum, counterprotesters threw rocks at the passing crowd. At least twice, shotgun blasts rang out from cracked and collapsed buildings, but it was not clear who fired them.
At least one man was wounded by a bullet, police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said. His condition was not immediately known.
Students supporting the protest threw rocks at passing U.N. vehicles, only to be choked into submission by volleys of police-fired tear gas.
Police separately arrested at least seven people on charges of robbing people in the mob. A U.S. Army helicopter circled overhead, centering on areas where the crowd was heaviest.
This was the strongest showing of opposition to the Haitian leader since the quake, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 to 300,000 people. The insults were deep and vulgar: Some talked about Preval’s mother, others chanted that the first lady belonged “under the rubble.”
Preval announced last week that he would stay in office up to three months past the end of his term next Feb. 7 if the presidential election is delayed. Officials are struggling to hold the election as scheduled this fall. The quake destroyed the election agency’s headquarters and records and killed or displaced about 1.6 million voters.
At a news conference last week, Preval assured the public that he would leave office by May 14, 2011 — exactly five years after his delayed 2006 inauguration.
“I want to establish stability in this country,” Preval said.
While marchers were passing the crushed palace, the president was several miles away presiding as co-chairman at an election-planning meeting at the U.N. peacekeeping base.
Still, as Monday’s protest wound down, a quorum of the 29-member Senate voted to extend Preval’s term. The 99-seat lower chamber approved the measure late last week.
The entire lower house and a third of the Senate were set to be vacant at midnight Monday due to the cancellation of legislative elections slated for February, leaving a rump upper house dominated by Preval allies and a president ruling largely by decree.
In the absence of a fully functioning Parliament, the country’s recovery will be directed mostly by a commission headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. It is to oversee $9.9 billion in foreign reconstruction money pledged at a March conference — a sum 40 percent larger than Haiti’s entire gross domestic product.
Discontent over government policy and the often unbearable smell and squalor in makeshift camps is on the rise, with scattered thunderstorms Monday drenching hundreds of thousands of people. A few thousand — only a fraction — of the homeless have been relocated to remote sites on the capital’s periphery managed by international aid groups.
“Preval has used the drama that our country went through and turned it into an opportunity for himself,” said Claudy Louis, 29, a schoolteacher. “Instead of looking out for the people, he quickly hatched a plan to benefit the small group of people around him, the bourgeoisie.”
Small bands of protesters were reported in other cities: the southern cities of Jacmel, Miragoane and Nippes, northwestern Gonaives and the northern port city of Cap-Haitien.
Other groups mixed in with the protesters, including government hires in yellow T-shirts who clutched the pickaxes and shovels they use to clear some of the quake rubble in a program overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development. They were protesting the agency’s decision to stop providing them with food as part of their compensation.
USAID dropped the free-lunch program as part of a broader effort to reduce food aid and increase local production but is continuing to pay the workers, legislative and public affairs special assistant Anna Gohmann said in an e-mail. She said discussions with site supervisors over the issue were held Monday.