In recent months, the opposition's strategy has become increasingly clear. Lacking the numerical strength to win an election, its elitist leaders threatened to violently oust Aristide if he refused to resign. Haiti's conservative factions have despised Aristide for his stridency and radical message ever since he was first elected in 1990 by a two-thirds majority. His hordes of adoring followers alienated the island's tiny mulatto-dominated elite and the country's paramilitary. But Aristide was unable to effectively establish security either by reining in his own Lavalas militants or the opposition's street fighters, nor could he entirely professionalize his outnumbered police force. The opposition's increasingly bellicose anti-Aristide street marches became a coup in the making that threatened to replicate the appalling repression suffered by Haiti under military rule, 1991-94.
Secretary Powell and his controversial Latin American aide, Roger Noriega, have at best used delphic prose in responding to Haitian issues. Rather than demanding that the opposition immediately choose its representatives to the Provisional Electoral Council and end its cat-and-mouse game aimed at sabotaging any prospect of parliamentary elections (which the opposition almost certainly would lose), Washington is unable to hide its pro-opposition bias, even though it cannot be seen as backing the overthrow of a democratically-elected president.
Given the rebels' ideological and financial ties to the U.S. -- they are generously funded by U.S. taxpayers through the International Republican Institute -- Washington's open denouncement of their obstructionism could have an electrifying positive effect. Yet, this has not been forthcoming, partly because U.S. hemispheric policy is guided by a small group of extremists with strong ideological ties to former Senator Jesse Helms, who simplistically see Aristide as the Caribbean's next Castro.
Aside from pro-forma language, Washington has shown little interest in ensuring that Aristide serves out his constitutionally-mandated term through 2006. On the contrary, it repeatedly questions his bona fides and unfairly holds him accountable for Haiti's economic woes -- which, in fact, the U.S. almost single-mindedly has helped to achieve. The White House carped at Aristide's admitted shortcomings, while it led efforts to freeze $500 million in international pledges to the island. The U.S. has placed demands that Aristide could not possibly fulfill without the resources it will not grant him, thereby giving the opposition a veritable veto over Haiti's future. Meanwhile, the political stalemate that produced a crippled economy has now alienated large numbers of Haitians, who have lost faith in democracy. In the last few days the situation has markedly worsened, as street demonstrations have become bloody riots and armed rebels emerge intent on overthrowing a legal government which, with all of its flaws, was neither cruel nor authoritarian.
Aside from its impermissible diktat mandating Aristide's departure, what do the rebels demand? Starting last December, its thugs took to the streets and insisted that all schools and hospitals be closed until Aristide leaves, and then underscored their demands by torching their buildings and roughing up students. In the last few days, the coup unfolded, as rebel forces seized 9 cities and hunted down government officials. The preemptory demand for Aristide's resignation without further dialogue or negotiation all along has been an audacious bluff meant to mask the fact that the rebels lacked sufficient votes to legitimately win an election, although they held Washington's proxy.
With a Haiti policy long bankrupt and now unraveling, U.S. policymakers have grossly misused the island's most valuable political asset, a now tarnished Aristide. The longer that Washington equivocates, the country's disintegrating economy will further sap Aristide's authority, while the rebels with their gangster tactics certainly will help propel tens of thousands of Haitian refugees to head for U.S. shores with a legitimate asylum claim. As Haiti enters its final destructive phase, the U.S. will rue the day that it birthed such a spavined policy.
Larry Birns is the director of the Washington DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, where Jessica Leight is a research fellow (www.coha.com). They can be reached at 1730 M Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20036. Phone: 202-216-9261, Fax: 202-223-6035, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.