August 2, 2004

August 2, 2004 | Commentary on Latin America

Help Haiti, But Keep a Close Watch

It's good to see order return to a nation once gripped by chaos - especially when that nation is just a two-hour flight from your own coast. The nation is Haiti, and it appears that interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue was a wise choice to lead it back from the brink of anarchy. Unlike his predecessors, Latortue, a former United Nations official who has traveled the world and studied the problems of developing nations, seems more interested in helping his homeland than looting it.

In office only since March 12, his administration has improved services, re-opened schools and established a new electoral council.

Heartened by Latortue's progress, international donors such as the European Community and the World Bank exceeded his request for $1 billion of aid over the next two years to put Haiti's reconstruction back on track. Already, the U.S. Senate has passed the Haiti Economic Opportunity Act of 2004, which will provide more duty-free access on Haiti-made apparel to the United States and help stimulate the economy.

But before any big checks reach Port au-Prince, donors shouldn't forget the experiences they had with former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now in exile.

Overthrown within months of taking office by his security chief after he associated himself with murderous street mobs, as opposed to tending to public institutions, Aristide was restored to power by President Clinton in 1994. Barely knowing who they had helped, neither the United Nations nor the Clinton administration held Aristide accountable for his actions. Forced to step down when his term expired in 1995, he returned to office in 2000 after winning a rigged election boycotted by the Organization of American States - and most of Haiti's citizens.

At the same time, concerns over the legitimacy of Aristide's government led the Clinton administration, the European Community and other multilateral bodies to suspend direct assistance. At this point, Haiti was a democracy in name only. Few public institutions functioned. Mob justice prevailed. Three-fifths of the government's revenues allegedly flowed directly to the president's office, unchecked by parliament.

Thereafter, the OAS tried to broker agreements between Aristide, domestic opponents and aid donors as the country slipped further into chaos. Yet he broke all promises to clean up a dismal human rights record, rebuild public institutions and guarantee the safety of dissenters.

This February, his own street thugs sensed he favored some gangs over others and marched against him. Aristide is gone now, but so are hundreds of millions of dollars that should have been in Haiti's treasury to help combat hunger, illiteracy and lost opportunity.

Thankfully, Latortue is no Aristide. However, bitter experiences with Aristide suggest that restoring aid to Haiti and providing economic opportunity should come only with strings. Haiti's new government must commit itself to public accountability and accept oversight over how contributions are spent. Donors such as the United States should agree to provide the supervision previously absent and help focus the efforts of Haitian institutions, grantees and contractors so initiatives do not work at cross-purposes.

Further, donors must insist that a permanent electoral infrastructure be established. Democracy can't move forward unless the people of Haiti can have confidence in their election results.

Latortue understands this. In a July 20 Washington Post commentary, he proposed a commission representing "government, Haitian civil society and donors" to monitor "building institutions, developing communities, and putting in place the conditions for free and fair elections and respect for the rule of law."

Such a partnership would be a major improvement over the arms-length donor-recipient relationship that existed 10 years ago. But closer collaboration does not lend itself to the quick exit strategies pursued by Clinton-era policymakers disappointed by their dealings with Aristide. Instead, it implies a continuing commitment to help Haiti establish a social contract based on liberties, rights and equal opportunity for all.

Previous efforts failed because interested parties placed their complete trust in a man they hardly knew. Future efforts will succeed only if we match active donor participation with accountability on the part of Haiti's governing officials. We owe it to the poor people of Haiti and to U.S. taxpayers, who have spent $3 billion on Aristide, to get it right this time.

Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America

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