Who are the good guys in Haiti?

Georgie Anne Geyer

October 09, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THERE ARE times in history when one wants to stamp one's foot and cry out, "Hey, guys, it just isn't all that simple!" Last week's Haitian coup is one of those times.

On the surface, the situation in that beleaguered Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola looked disarmingly simple and morally clear.

The elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been overthrown by some group in the army. Physically protected by American and other foreign diplomats, he fled finally to New York, where he addressed the Security Council like a new hero of democracy. The Organization of American States, which usually hustles about as fast as an iguana after Sunday dinner, got itself together to send high officials to Haiti to demand Aristide be restored to office -- and the notably peaceable OAS amazingly talked about sending an intervention force to the island.

For the United States' part, it immediately moved to cut off aid, and some discussions in Washington even compared Haiti to Kuwait. "How far will the U.S. go to defend democracy where there is no oil?" asked the New York Times soberly.

Suddenly, serious observers were actually comparing impoverished Haiti, humanly the poorest and strategically the least important country in the hemisphere, to Kuwait in August of 1990, when it had been taken over and the oil wealth of the world was threatened by a madman. It is at this point that one has to say, "Hey, wait just a minute!"

First, the soldiers are not necessarily the villains. At this moment, it is virtually sure, from reports of objective foreign diplomats in Port-au-Prince, that the coup was made not by the hated old generals who supported the bloody "Papa Doc" for so many years but by the ordinary lowest soldiers. If this turns out to be true, it is a sociological factor of tremendous significance.

Second, Monsieur le President is not necessarily all virtuous. The fact that President Aristide -- a leftist Catholic priest who has the emotional support of the masses of poor Haitians -- is elected is important because it finally gives a Haitian leader some legitimacy. But . . .

From what we know now, the poor soldiers, who have never had much power in Haiti to do anything, much less overthrow a government, became noticeably upset when President Aristide returned from a trip to the United Nations late in September and warned that opponents would end up with burning tires, a la South Africa, hung around their unfortunate necks. At the same time, he was forming a 300-man palace guard or personal militia, ostensibly to protect his person but a unit that could also be considered a counter-power to the police and army.

Now, delicious irony once again enters the island of Graham Greene's classic novel about Haiti, "The Comedians," with all its sardonic truths about "Papa Doc" Duvalier's people and their brutal comic absurdity.

President Aristide's new militia was patterned directly after the leftist militias of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Castro has all along supported Aristide, who is actually closer to a populist Castroite. In the wake of the coup, the prestigious Miami Herald, which knows the Caribbean scene better than any paper in the country, almost alone among newspapers was hesitant about Aristide's credentials, running a comprehensive article on the way he was doing things similarly to Castro and was ignoring or bypassing the real democratic institutions still left in Haiti, such as his own cabinet, the parliament and the judiciary.

Fidel Castro and Cuba immediately condemned the coup, but Castro also made it clear that he did not want Aristide returned on the wings of further American intervention in Haiti, particularly in the name of democracy.

The United States found itself virtuously supporting the return of a left-wing populist who has let not one moment pass without voicing his disdain and hatred for the imperialists he sees waiting like vultures north of Key West. And, of course, one of the diplomats who got him out with his scalp was the American ambassador.

It would be a delightful situation, if it were not so serious, if Haitians were not suffering so terribly in that abysmally run country, and if we were not seeing in that beleaguered island a country that is swiftly dying. As to understanding it all, where is Graham Greene when we need him?

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