For the third time in Haiti’s history, American troops are back on the streets of the capital Port au Prince. However, this time many people are accusing the United States of not taking the side of democracy. They say the Bush Administration’s refusal to help protect the democratically elected government against an armed insurgency essentially forced out Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had aroused growing opposition because of his repressive rule. VOA’s Serena Parker examines what went wrong in Haiti and how developing events on the island nation may affect regional politics.
At the end of February, with rebels poised to march on Haiti’s capital Port au Prince, the civilian opposition refusing to negotiate and the United States and France insisting that he was part of the problem, President Jean Bertrand Aristide resigned his post and fled to the Central African Republic. In the days since his sudden departure, many Haitians have questioned the U.S. role, especially with Mr. Aristide now claiming he was the victim of a political kidnapping, a charge the Bush Administration hotly denies.
Chip Carey, professor of political science at Georgia State University, says the United States could have handled the situation better. “The fact that the United States refused to provide security for Aristide in the last moments was clearly a way to push him out,” he says, “although it wasn’t a coup d’etat by the United States. It was a coup d’etat by the revolutionary forces that in effect chased him out.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with about 80% of its people living in abject poverty. Almost 40% of the island’s eight million inhabitants have no access to health care and the U.N.’s World Food Program provides for nearly 10% of Haitians. The current crisis has put a halt to almost all the food program’s activities, despite the fact that 1600 U.S. troops and 700 French, Canadian and Chilean troops are patrolling the capital in an attempt to restore some semblance of order. The multinational force is there as part of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Once the situation in Haiti is stabilized, a U.N. peacekeeping force will take over. Initially, the security force was to be joined by troops from the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, who have since backed out. Robert Fatton, chairman of the department of politics at the University of Virginia, says Haiti’s neighbors are troubled by the nature of Mr. Aristide’s resignation.
“The CARICOM countries said that they would not send any type of military or police assistance to be part of any international contingent that might be deployed in Haiti,” he says, “precisely because they feel that the constitutionally elected president of Haiti was removed under huge pressures from the international community and was removed, ultimately, by an armed insurgency.”
The issue of whether Mr. Aristide was forced out or resigned has broader implications for the region. He is the sixth leader in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1999 to be ousted before the end of his term. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez was briefly removed in an April 2002 coup before being restored to office. Robert Fatton says the Bush Administration’s refusal to back Mr. Aristide may encourage the Venezuelan opposition to take unconstitutional measures to throw out Mr. Chavez.
“It’s very clear that the opponents of Mr. Chavez are looking at Haiti with a certain degree of optimism because they assume that what happened there might in fact happen in Venezuela,” he says. “So that’s a possibility, although I think the situation is different because Mr. Chavez ultimately has the backing of the Army.”
Mr. Aristide did not have an army – because he disbanded it in 1994. Professor Fatton says instead, he relied on a poorly trained police force and ultimately on armed militias, the so-called chimeres, to defend his rule.
Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University in Washington, agrees that while there are many parallels between Haiti and Venezuela, there are also some crucial differences.
“The situations in Haiti and in Venezuela are similar in the sense that you had, in the case of Haiti and still have in the case of Venezuela, a highly polarized population with growing, deep antagonism toward the ruler and the possibility that the democratic process could break down,” Mr. Pastor says. “In the case of Haiti, obviously, it completely broke down. In the case of Venezuela, they seem to be hanging on by a thread. So in that sense these two incidents are quite similar, but they are also quite different. Venezuela has a history of democracy, of elections, especially under Chavez, who has held several elections. There is a history of democratic politics, of pacting, in which the political parties understood the necessity of retaining the basic foundation of a democratic system. And there was no experience like that in Haiti.”
Mr. Aristide, like Mr. Chavez, is accused of being more concerned with staying in power than improving the lives of Haitians. American University’s Robert Pastor says Mr. Aristide appeared to be continuing the tradition of the Haitian strongman, which is at the root of current problems.
“To truly understand where Haiti is today you almost have to go back two centuries,” he says, “and realize that the history is a history of authoritarianism and poverty, and the lack of the development of a middle class and tremendous inequalities and repression. And all of that made it very difficult when the first free and fair election in Haitian history occurred in 1990 for the newly emerging parties to understand the spirit of compromise which is so critical to building a democratic foundation.”
In addition to all of Haiti’s structural challenges, including the complete breakdown of infrastructure and utter degradation of the environment, Professor Chip Carey of Georgia State University faults both the Aristide government and the civilian opposition for not working together.
“It is the responsibility of both the government and the opposition for not having formulated a process of national reconciliation,” he says. “They each blame each other. Now that Aristide is gone there’s a chance for another national reconciliation process with his political forces and the opposition.”
Since Mr. Aristide left the country, a tripartite agreement has been reached between the Lavalas movement, the civil opposition and the business community, which may be a sign that Haiti will continue down the path of civilian democratic rule.
However, American University’s Robert Pastor says nothing is certain as long as armed rebels, led by Guy Philippe, and pro-Aristide militias freely roam the country. In fact, he says calls for an election are very premature.
“They simply do not have the capacity or the integrity or the credibility to conduct an honest and impartial election,” he says. “This is something for the international community, for the United Nations, perhaps for the Organization of American States, perhaps for a non-governmental organization to do. Not for Haiti to do itself. Though Haiti can work alongside the international group, I can assure you that if the election commission is principally responsible for the election, there will be very serious problems that will emerge as a result of it.”
Robert Pastor says resolving the deep-rooted political, social and economic problems so they do not continue to be repeated is key to Haiti’s future. He proposes the United Nations set up a trusteeship for Haiti. Under the U.N. Charter, the Trusteeship Council is responsible for promoting the advancement of the inhabitants of a trust and preparing them for self-governance or independence. This process in Haiti would take decades and require a large financial commitment. But absent something as bold as that, he warns that Haiti will likely repeat the mistakes of the past.