Protesters have paraded for the past 10 days through this port in a remote corner of Haiti, boldly testing the will of the three month-old government led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy to take care of the population's basic needs.
In demonstrations this week, townspeople piled cactus trees across the road and dug gaping holes in the bridges leading to Fort Liberte, cutting it off from the rest of Haiti and halting traffic throughout the northeastern region. All stores and schools were shut.
Fort Liberte, a border town of 17,000 residents 215 miles northeast of the capital, is asking for electricity, running water and a few more jobs. The town wants to reopen its port, closed by Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier in the early 1960s, to foreign trade. Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) ruled Haiti for almost three decades before the younger Duvalier was forced to leave Feb. 7.
The national government council Namphy heads was greeted with jubilation when it came to power, ending the repressive 28-year rule of the Duvalier family. But the protest here echoes recent demands from villages across the countryside. Impatient Haitians are using a new-found freedom of expression to challenge the council to prove it will not neglect them as the Duvaliers did.
Namphy faces rising pressure from a variety of Haitians who charge that the council is moving too slowly to devise an economic development program for the hemisphere's poorest nation. Politicians in the capital are also pressing Namphy to set a timetable for nationwide elections, but inhabitants of rural areas are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues.
Said Pascal Blaise, a Fort Liberte lawyer: "Namphy came in saying he has no political ambitions of his own. The time has come for him just to put a few things in their place."
"It's just a local dispute," said Namphy in a meeting today with foreign reporters in Port-au-Prince. "But the people have chosen a very dramatic way to express themselves."
Protesters here waved red flags they said were Soviet, as well as the flag of the neighboring Dominican Republic. They threatened to "seek other parents to give us milk" if Haiti's government failed to respond to their demands, according to Mayor Massillion Joseph.
The town is asking Namphy to settle a simmering 23-year-old dispute with the nearby village of Ouanamint by moving the offices of the district political chief, known as the prefect, from there back to Fort Liberte.
Yesterday about 1,000 dancing demonstrators, blowing trumpets and conch shells, scaled a point overlooking the harbor to the windy ruins of a 19th-century French fort. Amid the goats and thistles, they swayed to chants, in Haiti's Creole language, of their town's protest song.
"If Namphy wants peace," they sang, "he must do what we ask."
Hospital clerk Roger Pierre, 29, reported that at least 15 people were wounded in clashes between Army soldiers and demonstrators this week.
Several Army platoons moved into Fort Liberte Tuesday. They used tear gas and fired into the air to break up protests Wednesday, residents said. A number of townspeople were injured by exploding bullets tossed into street fires by the soldiers.
Fort Liberte residents said they waved the Soviet and Dominican flags to attract the attention of national authorities after days of demonstrations brought no response.
"It was a trick to make them listen to us," giggled schoolteacher Rude Charles-Pierre. "We don't really want to be communists."
Last Tuesday, two high-level Ministry of Information officials from the capital came to Fort Liberte. Residents felt their replies were vague.
Fort Liberte shows the marks of Haiti's more prosperous, genteel past and of the disastrous decline that set in under the Duvaliers. Residents said "Papa Doc" closed this and all other ports, except for Port-au-Prince, to foreign trade to concentrate the collection of tariffs for the family coffers in one place.
Townspeople now are worried that the protests had dragged on more than a week without a response.
"It's a bad sign," said lawyer Blaise.