The political and constitutional turmoil in Haiti deepened yesterday as the country's parliament ceased to function and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began in effect to rule by decree while mass protests against him continued.
With a general strike entering its fifth day, President Aristide delivered a speech at the airport in Port-au-Prince in which he failed to mention the clamour for him to step down.
Amid tight security, the President then left on his private jet to attend the Summit of the Americas in Mexico. His address was dedicated to honouring the founding fathers of Haiti, which became the world's first black republic 200 years ago this month.
On Sunday, 10,000 people marched through the capital demanding that President Aristide leave office. The protests began after the Catholic Bishop, Pierre-Andre Dumas, criticised the government for nurturing corruption, repression and anarchy.
"Don't be afraid," the Bishop said. "We need to take another path so that Haiti can live." More demonstrations were expected around the country. While Sunday's march was mostly peaceful, clashes between opponents of the President and his supporters and police have led to the deaths of hundreds of Haitians since early December.
Last week, the United States, which helped reinstall President Aristide in 1994 after he was ousted from power in a military coup, censured his administration for allowing "government-sponsored gangs" to rampage through the country intimidating his opponents. Anger at President Aristide has been mounting in recent months. Insisting that parliamentary elections in 2000 were flawed, the opposition has refused to participate in new balloting. The terms of most of the members of parliament expired yesterday, making the body defunct.
The protests against the government have been led by students, businessmen and civil rights groups. They accuse President Aristide, a former Jesuit priest who became Haiti's first democratically elected leader in 1990, of corruption and human rights violations. President Aristide, 50, who was re-elected in 2000, has vowed to remain in office until his current term ends in 2006.
Frandley Denis Julien, an anti-government leader in Port-au-Prince, said: "We are engaged in a struggle that is pitting the people against the state. We need institutions. We need leadership. We don't need a charismatic leader to replace Aristide."
Most banks, schools and large businesses have been closed since last Thursday because of the strike. It is being led by Jean Henold Buteau, a doctor in Port-au-Prince. The government has condemned it. Haitian commandos with M16 rifles patrolled the rooftops as President Aristide prepared to leave the airport yesterday.
Helicopters hovered above the scene as a long convoy of black vehicles ferried the Haitian leader to the aircraft that was due to transport him to Mexico.
Before his departure, President Aristide renewed his call to the opposition to take part in elections. "The minute we say yes to the democratic process, we also say yes to the electoral process,'" he told The Miami Herald in an interview. "It's time to have elections. Elections [are] the best way to lead the country from where we are in crisis, to economic growth, to a better future."
In its scolding of President Aristide, the US alleged that his police force is to blame for some of the recent violence.
"Although it is clear that some elements of the police worked diligently to protect the demonstrators, it is also clear that other police officers collaborated with heavily armed, hired gangs to attack the demonstrators," Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said on Friday.