Colin Powell's Policy Towards Haiti:
Callous Indifference or Desire for Regime Change?

by Larry Birns

February 19, 2004

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Secretary of State Colin Powell’s current policy toward Haiti can be described at best as irrelevant, and at worst as a covert effort to stand by as a coup de main comes down on Haitian democracy as a result of the forcible removal of President Aristide from office. Secretary Powell’s position is that dispatching a peace force to the island at this time is premature and that the proper procedure instead would be for the Aristide government to achieve a political settlement with the opposition prior to any decision about the introduction of outside forces.

 Powell’s stance is completely devoid of credibility since it condemns Haiti to precisely what the Secretary of State has previously stated that the U.S. wanted to avoid: “regime change” through an extra-constitutional change of government in Haiti whereby “the elected president . . . is forced out of office by thugs.” A peace force is needed now, when a constitutionally-elected government risks being overthrown by an opposition that increasingly is being taken over by armed war criminals from the era of military rule, and not, in the unlikely eventuality after a political settlement occurs, when presumably such forces would no longer be required.

One therefore must conclude that U.S. policy is now definitively characterized by a two tier strategy: on the one hand, Powell places Washington on the side of the rest of the hemispheric community in committing the U.S. solidly against recognizing the forcible overthrow of a democratically-elected government, as codified by OAS resolutions at Lima and Santiago. On the other hand, Washington paradoxically comes forth with a paradigm that inevitably will lead to the demise of constitutional rule in Haiti – something that his sadly inadequate Latin American team of ideologues, led by Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, have been whispering about for many weeks, namely regime change and the removal of Aristide through some unspecified process.

 The Reality in Haiti

Interested overseas parties have joined Powell in stressing that outside forces would be introduced only after a political settlement had occurred between contending forces in Haiti. Powell has been joined by his French and Canadian counterparts in laying down a scenario whereby the outside community “would come forward with a police presence to implement the political agreement the sides come to.” But this formula flouts dramatic realities on the ground. To begin, the legitimate government of Haiti is being threatened by a relatively small group of armed militants against which the country’s 4,000-member untrained and under-equipped police force cannot adequately cope. Furthermore, most of the violence up to now has been at the hands of the so-called non-violent opposition, and is now being joined by increasingly violent factions. The island’s most influential of opposition factions, the Group of 184, subscribes to a “zero-option” strategy whereby it adamantly refuses to enter into a dialogue, let alone be prepared to negotiate with the Aristide government under any terms or conditions. This policy is central to the opposition’s survival because such negotiations, if successful, would lead to elections which its candidates would almost certainly lose.

Meanwhile, President Aristide has indicated a willingness to accept every condition demanded of him by the CARICOM prime ministers, the U.S. and the OAS. The question should be asked, who makes up the opposition and what is their automatic claim to co-equal status to the government? At best, the opposition is thought to represent no more than 20 percent of the population, and in terms of public manifestation, they were able to turn out at most 20,000 partisans in a major public display several weeks ago. As for the government, at least 300,000 (and perhaps twice that number) marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince in support of it several days ago.

Who is Committing the Violence?

In terms of resorting to violence, the opposition is at least as guilty as are government militants. In fact, in a parade staged in Port-au-Prince several weeks ago, opposition gangs were led by Evans Paul, an important opposition figure, who called for all schools and hospitals to be closed until Aristide stepped down from power. During that unruly parade, several schools were in fact torched, a number of teachers and students were roughed up, and market stalls were upended. Characteristically, police actions against the opposition occurred only after opposition marchers had diverged from the parade route which previously had been filed by the leadership with the police, which was reminiscent of action taken by the authorities in New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami against anti-globalization protesters who had strayed from the route that parade officials had filed.

Secretary Powell’s assumption that the opposition is even remotely interested in a settlement is further undermined by the recent statement of André Apaid, a main leader of the Group of 184, urging the leaders of gang of “thugs,” to use Powell’s description, who had taken over Gonaives, not to turn in their weapons because insurrection can be justified in the struggle against repression. The opposition, which has been made all the more dangerous as its adherents are being swelled by military and paramilitary personnel who fled into exile after the military junta had been ousted by U.S. forces, are now returning to the country and already have been participating in the armed takeover of Haitian cities after which wanton sacking has been involved.

Outside Forces on the Way?

At the same time, other international forces have acted in a much more serious and constructive manner than Washington, although they have been persuaded to agree that a political solution must be achieved first. Yet, this was not the formula that France recently practiced in the Ivory Coast when it sent troops to that country to help put down an active insurrection threatening the sitting government. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has announced that his country is considering sending in a “buffer force” and that discussions are now going on with the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, Canada and Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors concerning what is to be done in this “emergency situation.” He also stressed that these discussions were taking place within “the framework of the United Nations, which has sent a humanitarian mission to see what is possible.” As for the UN, Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that the international body is “reassessing its own participation and how we should become more actively engaged.” While this is all admirable, Haiti is running out of time to be rescued.

The Formula

History will judge Secretary of State Powell very harshly if he continues to passively stand by and watch Haiti burn. Powell’s position is untenable. He says that a political solution must first take place before the international community will take action. But this position flies in the face of the opposition’s fundamental dogma, that it will not negotiate with Aristide under any circumstances and that the president’s only options are to voluntarily leave office or be physically ousted. The Secretary’s stated position would be much more credible if his words urging compromise to the Aristide government would have been accompanied by an injunction to the opposition that it must enter into good faith negotiations with Port-au-Prince authorities or be denied any official standing in whatever solution is made to pacify the present explosive situation on the island.

Ever since the Clinton administration, the U.S. rarely has accorded the Aristide government the respect and support it needed to place the country on a solid footing. In the absence of a coherent Haitian policy, the international community is risking a humanitarian fiasco as tens of thousands of Haitians fall below survival conditions. By subscribing to a shockingly bankrupt police, Powell risks further damage to his reputation which already has been marred by embarrassing revelations concerning U.S. Iraq policy.

Larry Birns is the director of the Washington DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Contact COHA at: 1730 M Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20036. Phone: 202-216-9261, Fax: 202-223-6035, email: coha@coha.org.

Other Articles by Larry Birns

* Washington Must Dramatically Raise its Profile Regarding Haiti or Await the Deluge
* US-Financed Insurrectionists Wreaking Havoc in Haiti with Jessica Leight

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* Haiti: Waiting for Something Bad to Happen by Jessica Leight
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* Haiti Fatigue? by Mickey Z.







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