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Restoring order in Haiti

Roque Strew | Monday, March 1, 2004

The violent tenor of Haitian politics is tragically stubborn. Already overthrown once, the Aristide government is again faced with a coup d’tat, albeit one proceeding in slow motion. Citizens, inured to upheaval as they are, haven’t seen anything like it. A retired hotelier, reports The Economist, admitted he’d witnessed “quite a few revolutions, but this is the weirdest one.”Apprehending the scale of atrocity visited on the people of Haiti over the years isn’t easy for Westerners. How many coups amount to “quite a few?” Aristide himself put the tally at 32 revolutions. Since the beginning of the 19th century, when Haiti won independence from France, the Haitian military has been the centerpiece of the country’s unceasing turbulence.Among the poorest of the world’s nations, Haiti had been ruled under military dictatorship by the Duvalier family, from 1957 to 1986, when popular sentiments exploded in favor of Duvalier’s removal. Not long after, Haiti made a colossal step toward democratic government. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president by wide margins. Inevitably, a military junta followed several months later.One of the brighter episodes in America’s murky career in interventionism in intent (if not outcome) was President Clinton’s deployment of 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994. As The New Yorker noted, the goal of the deployment was novel: to “restor[e] an elected democracy to power.” The optimism of Clinton’s highly unpopular decision was undermined by its narrow focus: returning Aristide to power, rather than fostering institutional democracy. Nevertheless, it signaled a profound shift in foreign policy for America. More importantly, however, it marked the end of the Duvalier’s cruel reign.Surprising everyone, both the international community and the Haitian electorate, Aristide turned out to be a garden-variety populist despot. The radical metamorphosis of a Franciscan priest, devoted to altruism, into the textbook crooked dictator, could not be predicted. In retrospect, some lay blame on the deep roots of corruption in the country’s political culture. But the watershed came in 2000, when Aristide allegedly rigged the popular election. America swiftly meted out punishment. After the sham election, Sen. Jesse Helms spearheaded a Republican push to dam aid to Haiti, withdrawing roughly a half a billion dollars, annually – not the best policy toward an impoverished country verging on famine. The embargo strangled an economy already on life support.The election matter also solidified internal resentments and suspicions. Perceived corruption and a failing economy were undoubtedly key in fueling anti-Aristide sentiment. Soon an amorphous rebel force began to assemble. What began as a ragtag militia has begun steadily to adopt the traits of a professional army. Numbering around 500 troops, the National Resistance Front for the Liberation of Haiti has already cemented control in northern Haiti.And rebel forces aren’t exactly sterling paragons of democratic values. In fact, they recall in some respects the Northern Alliance that helped the United States remove the Taliban, only far worse. Among their leaders are commanders of death squads, murderers, and the notoriously corrupt officers who served under Duvalier. Without a doubt, these men cannot be permitted to take Port-au-Prince, the capital. Despite the imperfections of the Aristide government, it should not be violently overthrown again – especially by an improvised group of rebels with shadowy agendas and ominous histories. Corruption seems to be inescapable for now, but there clearly exists a lesser of two evils. At first, the American peace plan, involving an arrangement where the opposition and Aristide share power, seems to be the most promising. Comprehensive international involvement would later enable Haiti to wean itself off this temporary power-sharing arrangement. Despite the opposition’s rejection of the American plan, on Feb. 24, this remains the best course of action.Again, comprehensive international involvement is crucial. The cut-and-run school of interventionism – Afghanistan one of the school’s most visible casualties – ought to have been abandoned by now. George Packer summed it up best in The New Yorker: “Dramatic interventions followed by elections aren’t enough.” According to The Economist, France understands this, proposing “an international police force to restore order, and aid to prepare for a presidential election under a government of national unity.” A short-term commitment isn’t a commitment at all.There can be no reticence. America must put itself fully behind the formation of a strong, legitimate Haitian government – a need essential to stabilizing the country. Sowing the seeds of democracy over historically arid ground – general among neglected, developing nations – demands full commitment. Anything less is unavailing, costly and immoral.

Roque Strew is a junior political science major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at wstrew@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.