July 20, 2004 | WebMemo on Latin America
One of the reasons that Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidency in Haiti was such a disaster is that he refused to render accounts to anyone-even to his own thugs. They eventually turned against him, helping to force his resignation on February 29, 2004.
Now, the United States and international donors working with Haiti's interim government should take care not to fund a similar despot further down the road. Only active donor participation and strong accountability mechanisms will prevent another Aristide-or worse.
Not that interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue is a closet dictator. Far from it.
A former United Nations official who has traveled the world and studied the problems of developing nations, Latortue was a wise choice to help pick up the pieces after Aristide's government collapsed. Only a few months in office, his administration has improved services, re-opened schools, and established a new electoral council.
But if donor nations and multilateral organizations like the World Bank fail to learn from previous experience, they will be throwing more money down a rat hole.
Two issues stand out. First, when Bill Clinton intervened in Haiti in 1994, he did so to restore a flawed personality to an elected office believing it would restore democratic order. Back in 1991, Aristide's own security chief overthrew him after a few chaotic months in which the fiery ex-priest neglected public institutions and ingratiated himself with street mobs.
A thorough review of that history should have tempered any U.S. enthusiasm to send Aristide back via gunboats. Yet, he persuaded Washington officials to allow access to frozen Haitian assets that he then used to lobby for a return by force.
Second, the Clinton Administration failed to hold Aristide accountable for future actions in exchange for restoring his presidency. Both sides agreed to demobilize Haiti's military to remove the threat of another ouster, which Aristide took as license to do whatever he wished. While U.S. officials hoped Aristide would build up public institutions, he again surrounded himself with violent gangs.
At the end of his constitutional term in 1995, U.S. officials had to persuade him to step down, even though it was to allow his handpicked candidate and elected successor, René Préval, to take office. That was about the last time Aristide listened.
Behind the scenes, he manipulated the hapless Préval like a puppet. The judicial system functioned only under Aristide's partisan influence. Haiti's police force, trained by the United States and Canada, became politicized and gradually dwindled to half its original strength.
No permanent electoral infrastructure resulted from elections bankrolled by the United States and other donors. A series of flawed contests resulted in the dissolution of Parliament and Aristide's questionable reelection to a second term by a vote that the opposition, the Organization of American States (OAS), and most Haitians boycotted.
Concerns over the legitimacy of Haiti's government led the Clinton Administration to suspend direct assistance in 2000, along with the European Community and other multilateral bodies. If Haiti was a democracy, it was in name only, as few public institutions functioned. Moreover, 60 percent of the government's revenues allegedly flowed into 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. But Aristide broke all promises to clean up a dismal human rights record, rebuild public institutions, and guarantee the safety of dissenters.
Aristide is gone now. So too are hundreds of millions of dollars that should have been in Haiti's treasury to help combat hunger, illiteracy, and lost opportunity. Donor nations are meeting this week to consider Prime Minister Latortue's request for some $1 billion over the next two years to put Haiti's reconstruction on track.
On July 16, the U.S. Senate passed the Haiti Economic Opportunity Act of 2004, which will provide apparel made in Haiti with duty-free access to the United States, helping to stimulate the island's economy.
But past experience suggests that restoring aid to Haiti and providing economic opportunity should come with strings. Haiti's new government must commit itself to public accountability and accept oversight over how contributions are spent. Donors-including 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.
In a July 20 Washington Post commentary, interim Prime Minister Latortue 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 envisioned by U.S. policymakers during the Clinton Administration. 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 only be successful if they are based on active donor participation and accountability on the part of the recipient.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.