Haiti restores democracy as Preval inaugurated (Reuters)
By Tom Brown and Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – President Rene Preval took office and appealed for peace in his troubled Caribbean nation on Sunday as Haiti inaugurated its first democratically elected leader since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted more than two years ago.
Scores of people chanted for Aristide’s return from exile in South Africa as Preval took the oath of office. Shortly before the ceremony, police and foreign troops fired tear gas at the nearby National Penitentiary to quell a riot.
Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist who was president of Haiti from 1996 to 2001, takes the place of a U.S.-backed interim administration appointed after Aristide fled Haiti in February 2004 in the face of an armed rebellion and under pressure from Washington and Paris to quit.
He appealed for peace in the poorest country in the Americas, which is struggling to establish a stable democracy after decades of dictatorship and military rule and recent political violence that took hundreds of lives.
“If we don’t talk to each other, we are going to fight each other, and there will be no peace,” Preval said on the steps of the National Palace. “Peace is what we need. Peace is the key to opening all the doors.”
Tens of thousands of Haitians viewed the ceremony under the watchful eyes of blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers perched on rooftops.
No foreign leaders attended the inauguration, but guests included Canada’s Haitian-born governor-general, Michaelle Jean, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of the U.S. president.
In the front row, seated next to the president of the Supreme Court, was Prosper Avril, a former dictator who escaped two years ago from a penitentiary where he was held as a threat to national security under Aristide.
‘RETURN TO CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER’
“The ceremony today marks the return to constitutional order,” said Joseph Lambert, speaker of the National Assembly, as he turned the presidential sash over to Preval, a former Aristide protege who is the only leader in Haiti’s 202-year history to win a democratic election, serve a full term and peacefully hand power to a successor.
Preval took office more than two months after he was declared the winner of Haiti’s chaotic February 7 presidential election, a vote he claimed was tainted by fraud.
Haiti’s capital was under tight security with about 4,500 Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers perched on armoured personnel carriers and patrolling the streets.
Preval called on Haiti’s 8.5 million people to show that the foreign troops sent to Haiti after the fall of Aristide were no longer needed for security.
“We need the U.N. to help us with more tractors, bulldozers and trucks to help us build roads,” he said. “Those are the instruments we need now. We no longer need the armoured vehicles.”
Shortly before Preval took the oath, police and troops fired tear gas to halt a riot at the overcrowded penitentiary. Prisoners said as many as 12 people were killed in the uprising, but officials said several inmates were only wounded.
“The prisoners said ‘long live Preval.’ They said they are political prisoners and they should be released,” said Marc Wilkens Jean, Haiti’s national prisons director.
Rights groups say the U.S.-backed interim government appointed after Aristide’s departure locked up hundreds of Aristide supporters without charges.
“Whether they want it or not, Aristide should come back,” demonstrators chanted outside Parliament. Their voices were heard inside the Chamber of Deputies where newly elected legislators gathered for the inaugural.
The United States, a major behind-the-scenes player in Haiti, has welcomed Preval’s election, but American officials have warned him not to bring Aristide back from exile.
The biggest challenges for Preval, who like Aristide is seen as a champion of the poor, include opening aid flows to his country and making a near-term difference in the lives of the impoverished masses, Haitian experts say.