Hell in Haiti

February 03, 1992

The United States, try as it may, cannot escape its responsibility to the exploited and desperately poor people of Haiti. Washington, for all the right motives, prodded the Organization of American States to impose an economic embargo on Haiti last autumn after the army deposed that Caribbean nation's first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. At first the hemisphere rejoiced, seeing the embargo as a needed, precedent-setting pressure tactic to restore Mr. Aristide, rebuff military rule and encourage democracy. No longer.

The Haitian embargo, like the current embargo against Iraq, is devastating only to the masses. Rulers and elite get richer and richer. Those few with hard currency or government privilege in Port au Prince or in Baghdad can buy any luxury they want. But millions of human beings in the slums and boonies of both countries have been reduced to bare subsistence -- a plight their governments eagerly manipulate for political purposes.

So what to do? One alternative is to wait it out, this on the theory that hardship with a promise of eventual liberation is preferable to better living standards under interminable tyranny. Another alternative is to rally the international community to the use of force, with all its troubling dangers and implications. Still another is to abandon the embargoes selectively, while trying to target economic retribution against ruling groups that have stashed considerable personal assets abroad.

None of these choices is really palatable, but for the time being the first prevails. OAS diplomats have labored furiously to arrange what is known in Haiti as "The Solution" -- one in which President Aristide would return to share power with a prime minister of his choice who has been approved by parliament. On the surface, it is a logical arrangement. But logic is an unknown in the governance of Haiti. What matters are power, intimidation, corruption, double-dealing, ambition and indifference to the plight of the poor. So the various warring practitioners of these arts -- not only hoodlums in the army but supposedly respectable civilian politicians -- have blocked "The Solution." Haiti's own brand of hell endures.

To abandon the embargo would send a message that international norms of behavior are easily junked. To prolong it indefinitely without hope of success would be cruel to the downtrodden.

Witness the exodus of boat people from Haiti. The Bush administration is so paralyzed at the specter of a mass emigration that, with court approval, it has begun returning would-be emigres to an uncertain fate in their homeland. Such a policy, roughly analogous to the plight of the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, smacks of callousness and racism.

So the use of force or tougher measures to get at and get rid of the powers-that-be should be considered urgently. If the United Nations is a stronger organization because Iraq was ejected from Kuwait, the OAS can become more credible if it acts decisively to restore legitimate government to Haiti.

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