PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The freedom bell stands in the pantheon just outside the grounds of a razed presidential palace, quietly serving as a symbol of the fight for social justice in an unequal and divided society.
More than two centuries after it was sounded to announce slavery's abolition, fueling the Haitian Revolution, the call for equality by the country's impoverished black masses still rings hollow.
Now, opponents of President Michel Martelly are invoking Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a revolutionary hero who proclaimed the world's first black republic, to decry government abuses and give a voice to their struggle. The new battle line is as much about race and class as access to wealth and power.
"From the moment he arrived in power, he knew that the masses were in need," street vendor Gerard Baptichon, 47, said about Martelly. "The first thing he should have done is to ensure that everyone could eat; that all those who were worse off could afford a cup of rice."
Risk of returning to the past
Five years after its most devastating earthquake, a century since the 1915 U.S. occupation and on its 211th anniversary, Haiti risks returning to its tumultuous past.
A pre-electoral crisis looms. Municipal and legislative elections are postponed. And uncertainties surround Jan. 12. That's when Haitians will commemorate the more than 300,000 earthquake dead while they watch to see what happens in this nation of 10 million as the terms of most members of Parliament expire.
This week, Martelly, the chief judge of the Supreme Court and the heads of the two houses of Parliament signed a political accord in hopes of averting the crisis. But the tentative agreement, which calls for extending the terms of Parliament's lower chamber until April 24, 2015, and senators until Sept. 9, 2015, is based on an electoral law being passed before Jan. 12. If no law is approved, Martelly will rule by decree.
"As Haitians, we wouldn't like to have a Jan. 12 that arrives with difficulties, and aggravates Jan. 12, 2010," said Leon Brutus, 74, attending mass inside the temporary structure of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake.
The political stalemate, while nothing new, is exacerbated by Haiti's post-earthquake reality: The influx of millions in foreign aid and government construction contracts — granted mostly to foreign companies — have not stimulated the economy as much as many had hoped, and Haitians are feeling the aftershocks.
"People are hungry," protester Ericq Cherry, 48, said during a recent anti-government demonstration.
Hunger is sprouting resentment and deep frustrations that are being tapped by those leading the increasing, and often violent, street mobilizations against Martelly. He is accused of not only dragging his feet on elections, but also of corruption and of trying to be a de facto dictator.
Opponents say Martelly and former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a casualty of the growing discontent, are trying to "recolonize" Haiti by putting foreign interests above national concerns as they grant lucrative mining contracts and development deals to foreign companies.