March 10, 2004 | WebMemo on Latin America
To date, U.S. interventions in Haiti have never been successful. The objective has always been to stabilize an unstable nation with a poorly educated populace and no social contract. The means of achieving stability has either been to take over the state or to back a popular leader-temporary fixes at best. If it is in America's interest to become involved this time, the most durable solution will lie between those extremes and will support the development of public institutions and an educated citizenry to maintain them.
In two decades of occupation from 1915 to 1934, the United States did virtually everything in Haiti. Through a Marine general acting as High Commissioner, it cleaned up foreign debts, built physical infrastructure like roads and public sanitation, and trained a professional security force. Meanwhile, Haitians served in government as figureheads.
When resentment grew against U.S. occupation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pulled back U.S. Marines without any provision to support what U.S. forces had built. Infrastructure crumbled and, despite elections, succeeding leaders became increasingly dictatorial in the absence of institutions to support better governance. And when the Duvalier Family came to power in 1957, they replaced the professional army with loyalist bullies called the Tontons Macoutes.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton took a different approach. His administration put its faith in a charismatic but flawed leader and pursued a quick exit strategy. Elected in 1990, deposed in 1991, and then restored by the United States in 1994, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a fiery parish priest with little experience in politics and none in government. He ruled by inciting street mobs to attack his opponents and often worked against the U.S. and international community's development agenda.
As he became increasingly dictatorial and resistant to advice, the United States and international partners began withholding assistance, which had accounted for 70 percent of the government's budget. Increasing violence and corruption repelled foreign investment, and Haiti's wobbly economy shriveled.
Pressured by advancing rebel groups he had helped create and denied another bailout by the United States, France, and the Caribbean Community, Aristide resigned on February 29, 2004, and accepted safe passage for himself and his family to the Central African Republic. Following an agenda recommended to Aristide by the 15-member Caribbean Community, Haiti's leaders have been organizing an interim government to manage national affairs until elections bring in a new slate of public servants.
In advancing this process, the United States and its international partners would do well to consider lessons from past experience:
Haiti's importance to the United States may be minimal compared to those of major trading partners or those of countries that pose a significant threat. Nevertheless, Haiti's stability is crucial to the fragile Caribbean community of democracies, and Haiti should not be home to a failed or hostile state. Modest, sustained influence and support for democratic and market institutions make more sense than periodic, costly bailouts.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.