Washington Must Dramatically Raise its Profile
Regarding Haiti or Await the Deluge

by Larry Birns

February 18, 2004

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Unlike his U.S. counterpart, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has said that his government is considering dispatching French troops to Haiti as part of an international police force to put down the present violence in the country. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell must do more than simply say that he is “disappointed” with the quality of leadership that Jean Bertrand Aristide has afforded Haiti. In response to Powell’s statement, many Haitians could respond that despite Aristide’s many shortcomings, his level of performance compares favorably to the Bush administration’s failed strategy towards the island, which has been based on freezing all aid to Aristide and waiting for the inevitable chaos to descend. Throughout Aristide’s three-year exile in Washington and after his restoration to the presidency in 1994 (after a U.S.-led regional force landed in Haiti), Washington has treated the Haitian president as a potentially dangerous figure who must be curbed in order to fence off his radical politics and messianic tendencies. Instead, all along Aristide should have been viewed as Haiti’s most precious political asset, regardless of his personal failings. Yet, even from a narrowly defined perspective of serving U.S. national interests and Bush administration reelection concerns centered on the negative impact that hordes of Haitian refugees sailing to south Florida would have on the president’s campaign, Washington, beginning with the Clinton administration, has maintained an indefensible policy towards Aristide since he came into office upon winning two-thirds of the vote in the 1990 election. Similarly, throughout Haiti’s history, Washington has treated the island with a mixture of low expectations, unrelieved disrespect and a policy devoid of any desire for constructive engagement or democratic advancement.

Washington’s Carefully Contrived Pretext

At the end of the 1990s, the IDB and other international lending agencies, along with the U.S. and other international donors, promised Haiti a total package of some $500 million for relief and development purposes. However, Washington, at the insistence of Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, instituted a policy of exaggerating the magnitude of disputed legislative elections in May of 2000 and using them to craft a policy of economic denial against Aristide based on the thesis that pledged donor aid to the country would be frozen until free elections were staged. About this time, the Democratic Convergence was formed, representing a coalition of disparate personalities and micro organizations, including former followers of the Duvalier dictatorship, the thuggish paramilitary force, FRAPH, and remnants of the harsh military junta that ruled the country until 1994. More recently, it was joined by the Group of 184, led by the very controversial André Apaid, a shady and notoriously opportunistic island millionaire who illegally holds both Haitian and U.S. passports, and who was involved in a personal tax fraud case with Haitian authorities.

In recent months, Washington’s calculated inaction and the OAS’ lack of political will have allowed the situation in Haiti to rapidly deteriorate. The Bush administration’s new leadership team appointed to implement U.S. policy toward Latin America, including Haiti, which featured Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, White House advisor Otto Reich and Noriega’s assistant Daniel Fisk, were all protégés of ex-Senator Helms. It was this group of zealots and hardliners who, off the record, let it be known to all concerned, that the Bush administration would countenance regime change in Haiti and that Aristide might have to be induced to step down in order to return stability to the country. In the last few days, as the situation in Haiti began to worsen, Secretary Powell, as he did once before when Washington had fallen on its face after his keystone cop team led by Otto Reich had prematurely recognized what turned out to be a failed coup in Venezuela, seized control of the issue by reversing Noriega and Reich and clearly stating that the U.S. would not recognize the overthrow of Aristide, as was also the Secretary of State’s position when it came to President Chávez in Caracas.

A Deeply Flawed U.S. Policy

After months of inaction, the U.S. has continued to base its policy towards Haiti on its freeze of aid and a series of political conditions that would have to be met before the freeze would be lifted. It persuaded Ottawa and Brussels to follow this policy, which also has been adopted by the OAS. Yet even though Aristide repeatedly has agreed to adopt these conditions, Washington showed no interest in advancing the pacification of the country or decisively addressing the now rapidly deteriorating economic and political conditions on the island. At this point, it is imperative that the Bush administration replace its present team of ideologues with seasoned policymakers who would be more responsive to hemispheric realities. At the present time, something of a crisis exists not only with the carrying out of U.S.-Haiti policy, but also in the general tenor of Washington’s ties with the rest of the hemisphere. In recent weeks, a flap broke out between Noriega and Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, in which the latter insisted that his country would no longer be the “carpet” for U.S. policymakers and a high level Argentine official characterized Noriega’s statements regarding the country’s drift in favor of Cuba as being “imbecilic”.

In Haiti at the present time, armed fugitives from the period of military rule and notorious figures like ex-police chief Guy Philippe and FRAPH leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain have teamed up with armed street gangs that have threatened to expand their activities until they control the entire country. Any distinction between the André Apaid “polite” opposition and the violent street gangs that have seized a number of Haitian cities, including Gonaives, was removed when the U.S. citizen and Haitian millionaire urged the Gonaives street gang leaders not to turn in their weapons and remarked that “armed resistance” was a legitimate action.

The prospects for the onslaught of a terrible civil war mounts as impoverished Aristide supporters, who although they have been disappointed that their leader has failed to make good on his pledge to improve their daily lives, prepare to defend the country’s constitutional government.

What is apparent is that Washington must install a new Latin American policymaking team on an emergency basis. The group of ideologues now holding key positions in the policymaking process is incapable of bringing a peaceful resolution of Haiti’s present grave situation. Realizing the past ineffectiveness of the OAS’ leadership and political will on the Haitian issue, the United Nations should make the increasingly perilous situation in Haiti an item on its agenda and quickly decide, on an expedited basis, to dispatch a collective police force to the island consisting of units from Haiti’s fellow CARICOM countries, as well as France and Canada. Secretary Powell, at this late date, also should instruct the country’s opposition that it either must participate in the country’s electoral process by negotiating with the government on various processes spelled out by the CARICOM and OAS initiatives, or be considered irrelevant.

Larry Birns is the director of the Washington DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (www.coha.com). He can be reached at 1730 M Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20036. Phone: 202-216-9261, Fax: 202-223-6035, email: coha@coha.org.

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