Haiti is once again aflame and pressure is building for the United States to “do something.” The temptation is to go in and fix our southern neighbor once and for all. But the real problem is that the U.S. government, over almost a century, has done too much–”not too little–”in Haiti.
During the 20th century, the United States repeatedly has been deeply involved Haiti’s affairs. For example, in 1915 and 1916, to keep the Germans out and help fulfill his promise to teach Latin American countries “to elect good men,” Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation of Haiti. The United States governed Haiti for 19 years but was not a good teacher. A nationalist protest against the U.S. occupation and a massacre of such protestors by the U.S. Marines eventually led to a U.S. withdrawal in 1934 (some U.S. financial control remained until 1947). After the pull-out, a series of corrupt and authoritarian presidents ruled the country. In 1957, the even more oppressive Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came into power and used his secret police to terrorize the country until 1971, when he died. His despotic son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ruled until 1986.
In 1994, a flood of poor Haitian refugees began arriving on U.S. shores in makeshift boats. Then-President Clinton realized that this flow would not be popular in Florida. Under the justification of restoring the ousted democratically-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he therefore assembled a U.S. military force offshore that threatened to invade Haiti if the dictatorial regime of Raoul Cedras did not leave power. That rhetoric was hypocritical because the United States had previously undermined Haiti’s nascent democracy after the 1990 election and then restored Aristide in 1994 only after he agreed to adopt policies of the U.S.-backed candidate in the 1990 elections, who had received only 14 percent of the vote.
Of course, the wealthy United States could have assimilated those refugees without threatening a potential invasion of Haiti, but that was a politically unacceptable solution. The threat worked and the Cedras regime departed without the need for a U.S. attack. A great victory was declared for human rights and democracy. Yet after U.S. forces eventually left Haiti, however, that country remained corrupt, violent and one of the poorest nations on earth. The 1994 episode was only the latest of many U.S. military interventions in Haiti since the beginning of the last century, but the country never seems to get any better.
Even though Aristide had originally been genuinely elected, he held an unfair election in 2000 and uses armed gangs to repress the Haitian people. Recently, in the wake of violent opposition to Aristide’s repressive rule, the Bush administration’s policy has been muddled. First, the administration made known its desire that Aristide should step down, implicitly supporting an opposition supported by the dark forces from Haiti’s authoritarian past. Then the U.S. government reversed course and decided that Aristide should finish out his term in office, which ends in 2006, but allow the opposition to be part of his cabinet. The opposition has now declined that “invitation” and may be on its way to taking control of the country.
The death toll in the violence has so far been fairly low, and refugee flows to the United States have not yet occurred. Yet the two Democratic senators from Florida, a key state in the 2004 election for both parties, recently urged President Bush take rapid military action to stabilize Haiti and prevent any flight of refugees. No matter what happens in Haiti, the Democrats may gain political advantage. If the president does invade Haiti, the Democrats suggested it first; if not and refugee flows begin, the Florida Democrats can bludgeon the administration with the issue in the fall election campaign.
So President Bush, likely to be in another close election this year to keep his job, may perceive some incentive to take military action. Holding him back, however, should be his bitter experience–”and potential election-year albatross–”of occupying Iraq and likely Democratic criticism for overstretching the U.S. military.
Lost in all this electioneering is that Haiti will probably not be better off under the likely thuggish rule of the opposition than it has been under the democratically-elected autocrat Aristide. Like an episode of the movie “Ground Hog Day,” the United States keeps making the same mistake over and over again by meddling unsuccessfully in the affairs of a neighboring nation. The U.S. efforts to teach Haitians to “elect good men (or women)” at gunpoint are futile, and often counterproductive, because the Haitians need to change their political culture themselves to have any lasting effect. If, in the worst case, an all-out Haitian civil war ensues and refugees begin to flow, the wealthy United States should simply take them in and do what it can to avoid violating the sovereignty of a another country and thus undermining its image as the “beacon of liberty”.