Haiti: Dangerous Muddle

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 American troops into Haiti to restore Jean-Bernard Aristide to the presidency, there was widespread support for a mission aimed at restoring democracy and relieving the misery of the Haitian people. It also seemed to herald a new day in the post-cold war world, when American invasions were not automatically synonymous with supporting some Latin American caudillo or South East Asian despot.

With the exception of the isolationist Right, virtually every voice in the political spectrum cheered the policy of "liberal intervention." The use of American power to make good things happen was a heady drug.

Unfortunately, an addictive one.

Although there is no question that the 1994 intervention was good for Haiti, military intervention has turned out to be fraught with problems, particularly when it is wielded by one country.

Seven weeks after the invasion, the Republicans took control of Congress and systematically dismantled aid to the impoverished, war-torn country.

The cuts meant there was no effort to rebuild roads, ports, airports, or infrastructure. When Aristide’s opposition cried foul over eight contested seats in the 2000 election, the U.S. froze the final $500 million in aid.

The aid was never very substantial. Per capita, the U.S. was giving Haiti one fifth what it was spending in Bosnia, and one tenth what it was distributing in Kosovo. After 1996, U.S. aid to Haiti was the same as what it had given the dictatorship that deposed Aristide. Aid did flow, but not to Aristide. Instead, U.S. organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the opposition.

Shortly after the demonstrations and attacks on Aristide began, the U.S. State Department made it clear it would do nothing to impede his overthrow. In early February, an anonymous State Department official told the New York Times that the U.S. was not adverse to replacing Aristide, "When we talk about undergoing change in the way Haiti is governed, I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide’s position," the official said. Shortly before Aristide was driven out, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and President George W. Bush, essentially called for him to step down.

There is no question that the Aristide government was a troubled one, and some of the opposition was composed of former supporters alienated by corruption, violent pro-Aristide gangs, and the contested 2000 election. Most of this group was non-violent, and based mainly among Haiti ‘s elites and the business community. But the forces that converged on Port au Prince are the very thugs and murderers the U.S. invaded to get rid of in 1994.

Louis-Jodel Chamblain, one of the principal leaders of the armed opposition, is a former death-squad leader and one of the founders of the brutal Front for the Advancement of Progress in Haiti (FRAPH) that killed thousands of people between 1991 and 1994.

The shady nature of people like Chamblain and Andre Apaid of Group 184, has deeply worried human rights groups, and generated some anger in Washington. U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Ca) and Maxine Waters (D-Ca) have both challenged the "neutrality" of the U.S. State Department. In a recent letter to Powell, Lee wrote, "with all due respect, this looks like regime change." It would appear that Lee was right on target.

There is reason to suspect the two men in charge of diplomacy in the region. Otto Reich , U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), played an important role in the coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Noriega, has been a long-time critic of Aristide.

Whether through enmity or indifference, U.S. fingerprints are all over the overthrow of Aristide.

The U.S. should immediately take the matter to the UN Security Council, with a parallel effort in the OAS and Caricom. The Haitian opposition members–both nonviolent and violent–should understand that they have no automatic claim to political legitimacy. The hasty departure of the country’s duly elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the sad result of the threat of massive political violence by feared former members of Haiti’s security forces and intense strong-arming and political pressure by the U.S. government. If President Aristide did resign as has been widely reported, then Haiti’s interim government should call quickly for new elections under multilateral supervision. What’s more, all U.S. aid should be released immediately, and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should back off from their austerity prescriptions, which would only serve to further impoverish the poorest country in the hemisphere.

There are those who dismiss the OAS, and even the UN, as little more than cat’s paws for U.S. policy. Certainly both organizations have served as its hand maidens in the past. Supporting the criminal sanctions against Iraq was a shameful blot on the UN’s history, and the OAS should have suspended the U.S. for supporting the military coup in Venezuela.

But both organizations have independent streaks that appear to be strengthening. In any case, they are the only game in town, and the UN has scored some notable successes. It helped end the Iran-Iraq war, facilitated the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and has overseen elections in El Salvador, East Timor, and Eritrea. It also had disastrous failures in Rwanda and Bosnia. In the long run, however, it is the only serious solution to international crises.