February 24, 2004

February 24, 2004 | WebMemo on Latin America

Support Institutions, Not Despots in Haiti

It is time for Haiti to grow up. The culture of subjugation and rebellion that has burned there since Haiti won independence from France 200 years ago must be replaced by regular elections and public institutions. But as long as the United States and the international community keep indulging Haiti's political immaturity by supporting popular figures and then intervening when they go bad, the country will never be self-governing.   

Current Events
Pressure is mounting to rescue the current despot-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide-from violent rebels who began taking over cities in the northern half of the country on February 5. Haiti's National Police are powerless to fight back because Aristide staffed it with partisan loyalists four years ago, causing many professionally trained officers to quit.  

On Saturday, February 21, the Bush Administration and other foreign representatives met with Aristide, who promised to honor commitments made to Caribbean leaders in January 2004 to free detained opposition figures, disarm partisan gangs, reform the police, and work with opponents to appoint a new prime minister and governing council that would include the opposition.   

But Aristide has a history of ignoring promises and is waiting for the opposition to come to him. Absent immediate action on his part, the United States and the international community should decide whether Haiti's democracy has run off the rails and if so, support the restoration of democratic institutions under a process that allows Haitians to decide who their leaders will be.    

Here We Go Again
On February 17, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had good reasons for saying that "there is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces" to put down the rebellion. Previous interventions have been ineffective and costly. For instance, U.S. Marines put down an uprising in 1915 and stayed for 19 years, but stable government unraveled soon thereafter.  

In 1986, the Reagan Administration urged dictator Jean Claude Duvalier to step down after his misrule led to rebellion. A coup sent him into exile and, the next year, Haiti adopted its first truly democratic constitution. But in 1990, Haitians elected fiery ex-priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He called on violent street gangs known as chimeres to pursue political rivals and, in less than a year, his administration collapsed into chaos and violence. His own security chief, General Raoul Cedras, replaced him with a military junta.    

As an elected leader, Aristide was awarded gilded exile by the U.S. and allowed to draw on Haiti's frozen U.S. bank accounts. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Lawrence Pezzullo, Aristide used some of the money to lobby Congress to help restore his presidency. Aristide then blocked efforts to negotiate with Haiti's military rulers and local members of parliament, thus giving them an excuse not to accept him back. Blinded by Aristide's lobbying campaign and mounting Congressional pressure to do something, the Clinton Administration opted to invade Haiti in 1994.   

It was then-U.S. Army General Colin Powell who accompanied former President Jimmy Carter to restore Aristide to power at a cost of about $3 billion and a commitment of 20,000 troops. 

Back in office, Aristide repaid the high-level favor by reuniting his violent supporters and ruling like the dictators who preceded him.   

Few Alternatives
Whether to support Aristide again is a tough call. He is an elected official, despite the flawed contest in November 2000 that returned him to office with less than three percent of the electorate participating. Promoting his early departure would weaken Haiti's tenuous hold on consitutional order. On the other hand, his regime is hardly a democracy. Haiti does not now have a sitting legislature or an independent judiciary, and so the president rules by decree. Few other public institutions function and some state employees are reportedly paid with drug trafficking profits.   

Second, the rebels who may topple Aristide are former supporters who think they no longer need him. Pressured by the Organization of American States to improve his human rights record, Aristide began cutting links to them last year. Now, gangs like the Gonaives-based Cannibal Army have formed fronts that have taken over northern Haiti. Mixed in are death squad leaders and members of Haiti's disbanded military with whom Aristide once made temporary alliances.   

Weakest of all, and least heard above the din, are peaceful opponents who come from more than 300 fragmented groups known as the Democratic Convergence. They have yet to coalesce around specific solutions and leaders. But they are Haiti's best hope of restoring democracy.   

No Faith in Bad Faith
Tired of Aristide's broken promises, the non-violent Democratic Convergence has refused to negotiate with the president. They remember that he had to be talked out of staying beyond his first term which ended in 1995. He promised to help the downtrodden, but even with massive aid from the United States, Canada, and France, Haiti is poorer and more violent today than ever before.   

Under Aristide's Lavalas Party rule, outside electoral assistance never led to a permanent voter registry or to any other electoral infrastructure. All elections from 1997 forward were manipulated to various degrees by Lavalas, even though most of its candidates had enough votes to win.   

Under Aristide's 1995 successor, President René Préval, the United States and Canada trained a professional 6,000-man national police. But when Aristide returned to office in 2000, he appointed partisan loyalists to key positions, demoralizing the police force and turning it into little more than an escort service for his own mobs. Half of those professionally trained resigned; others were replaced.   

After the Clinton Administration suspended direct assistance to Haiti's government, President Aristide made an eight-point promise to correct previous flawed parliamentary elections, respect human rights, and form an administration including opposition parties. He also agreed to two resolutions from the Organization of American States to prosecute human-rights abusers and establish a climate of security. Aristide did little to keep these commitments.  

As peaceful protests reached a crescendo in January 2004, Aristide told leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community that he would disarm partisan gangs, reform the police, and work with non-violent opponents to appoint a new prime minister and governing council that includes the opposition as a basis to elect new members of parliament, whose terms had all lapsed. Days passed with no action until violence broke out on February 5.    

Help, with Strings Attached
The United States and other foreign parties deserve credit for wanting to help resolve the crisis. But doing so will require long-term involvement, not a quick fix. Meeting with President Aristide Saturday, February 21, diplomats from the United States, Canada, France, the Organization of American States, and the Caribbean Community got him to agree to a new cabinet and to allow an independent Haitian commission to select a new prime minister-similar to what Aristide promised Caribbean leaders in January. And if these concessions were to persuade opponents to stop calling for the president's resignation, delegation nations would consider sending troops to back-up Haiti's hapless police force. 

But business leaders, student groups, and political rivals have shown little patience for a recommitment to past promises made and ignored. Moreover, the February 21 proposal failed to provide for their safety or guarantee that Aristide wouldn't go back on his word.   

Propping up Aristide is a bad idea. It will neither restore democracy nor keep the peace. The United States and its allies would be better off urging him to resign. If they insist on a power sharing proposal, they must impose significant constraints on Aristide's authority and behavior while adding protection for members of the democratic opposition. 

In any case, the international community should be ready to help representatives of all Haiti's political parties form an interim governing council to arrange for fresh elections as soon as possible. These should be conducted by the Organization of American States until local capacity and competency permits a handover. To ensure accountability of aid, donor nations should form a supervisory council to channel assistance and ensure that it is used by the state only for intended purposes until responsible government and free markets emerge. Meanwhile, allegations against Aristide of human rights abuse and drug trafficking should be investigated. 

The entire process could take a decade or more. Is it in America's interest? Barely, but over the long term, democratic stability in our hemisphere is cheaper than blow ups and bailouts. 

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. 

About the Author

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