August 17, 1995 | Commentary on Latin America
Opposition to President Clinton's boldest foreign policy initiative -- U.S. military intervention in Haiti last year with 21,000 troops at a cost of $3 billion -- has now come full circle. With the defection of former president Jimmy Carter as an uncritical supporter of the administration's effort to "restore" democracy to the Caribbean island, the White House's touting of Haiti as its greatest foreign policy "success" is sounding pretty silly.
The former president, who provided crucial political cover last year for Clinton's decision to dispatch U.S. forces to Haiti, recently issued a devastating critique of the political process imposed under the lethal protection of U.S. guns by Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The report, issued by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, exposes Aristide's one-party "Lavalas" rule, with its widespread corruption, mismanagement and ballot manipulating, particularly in the June 25 election. Aristide's allies swept local and parliamentary seats in that balloting.
President Carter's critique of Aristide is especially startling, considering the long political association between the two. When Aristide won Haiti's 1990 presidential election, the Carter Center was at the forefront of groups supporting the results.
But relations began to sour within months after Carter personally helped pave the way for Aristide's triumphant return in October 1994. By year's end, it was apparent to all but the most ideologically driven that Aristide was personally turning Haiti into yet another one-man dictatorship -- his own. This should surprise no one, considering Aristide's political personality and his Marxist beliefs.
A critical part of Aristide's plan for seizing total power in Haiti has been his illegal and authoritarian command of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) that conducted the fraudulent June election. Sensing trouble in March, Carter visited Haiti and was formally rebuffed by Aristide. Unofficially, he was greeted by hostile crowds and vicious graffiti, all engineered by Lavalas street gangs intent on embarrassing the former U.S. chief executive.
The Carter Center report on the ensuing election -- written by Carter confidant and former National Security Council advisor Robert Pastor -- documents the disgraceful conduct of the Aristide government and his Lavalas party. "Of the 13 elections I have observed, the June 25 Haitian elections were the most disastrous technically, with the most insecure count," Pastor said in the report. "I personally witnessed the compromise of one-third of the ballot boxes in Port-au-Prince."
According to the report, the election was riddled with graft, fraud and chaos, with widespread irregularities, ballots burned, hundreds of voting stations never opened and tens of thousands of people never able to vote.
As an observer of the election on behalf of the International Republican Institute, I also observed the burning of ballots, counting irregularities and intimidation of people seeking to vote by Lavalas groups. This was indeed a sham, a complete denial of democratic rule.
As might be expected, former President Carter is still looking for ways to "fix" Haiti. His report includes several constructive suggestions, including criteria for re-running the June election under a revised CEP that includes more members who are independent of Aristide, improved ballot worker training, and creation of a new national task force on political reconciliation.
All of these are good ideas. But recent experience and a long history of corrupt Haitian politics indicate that the problems encountered by the Clinton-led U.S. intervention are deeply embedded in Haiti's political culture.
Thus, if nothing else, Aristide's rigged elections may at least have served the useful purpose of magnifying Haiti's long-standing problems for the rest of the world to see in something closer to their true light.
As another former president said more than a century ago, "democracy is not created by aspirations or by new faith." Rather, said Woodrow Wilson, democracy "is built up by slow habit." By this time-tested measure, Haiti can hardly be called a democracy.
John Tierney is a former visiting fellow specializing in Latin American affairs at The Heritage Foundation.