Tough Choices Surround Haiti


June 22, 1992|By ROBERT I. ROTBERG

Haiti is being destroyed. Washington's Haitian policy, well-intentioned but fatally flawed, is adrift. So is the approach to Haiti of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Eight months after a narrowly focused military oligarchy ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti has decayed economically and politically. Meanwhile, an American-OAS boycott has further depressed Haiti, compelling more than 30,000 Haitians to put to sea in flimsy boats.

Washington's use of economic sanctions to compel the Haitian military junta to restore democracy and President Aristide has backfired badly. What failed in Panama has failed in Haiti, the Western hemisphere's poorest and weakest country, because European countries have evaded our boycott and because drug-smuggling profits have continued to enrich the junta.

President Bush's newest policy regarding refugees is also unworkable and has evoked a storm of protest everywhere.

Washington and the OAS now have four realistic options:

* To do nothing new, and to hope for the best down the home stretch of a presidential election. To do nothing is exactly what the junta wants, and what Mr. Aristide fears most.

* To tighten the economic screws, knowing that sanctions alone have not yet compelled the junta to restore democracy, and knowing too that every twist of the screw will force more Haitians to risk their lives at sea.

* To broker an improbable deal whereby Mr. Aristide renounces his claim on the presidency, and the junta agrees to restart the Haitian democratic merry-go-round by holding new (and fair) elections. But who would believe the generals?

* To persuade the junta (using new and tighter sanctions or the threat of intervention) to bring President Aristide back and to hold new elections under OAS or United Nations auspices, with a multinational military group overseeing the first year of renewed democratic rule. Only then could necessary long-term economic and political change commence.

Just as the people of Grenada welcomed United States troops in 1983, the people of Haiti would welcome an OAS or U.N. force.

Securing Haiti would be comparatively easy. Its army is long estranged from combat, logistically and strategically weak, and unpopular. But then what? The interveners would have to give President Aristide firm and enduring advice (a potentially difficult proposition).

The choices are not exciting. But neither the United States nor the OAS can afford to do nothing. That is particularly so because the innocent, ordinary downtrodden Haitians are prepared to risk their lives by the thousands in order to sit sodden in tents on the edge of Cuba, for the faint chance of gaining entry to the United States.

They are fleeing repression. But they are primarily being attracted by the possibility, however slim and however unfounded, of economic betterment.

If the OAS intervenes, is it prepared to impose a regency and to reconstruct another nation in a way that has rarely been accomplished in modern times? Haiti, like Bosnia, is desperate. It is time to act to save democracy.

Robert I. Rotberg, president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., is the author of "Haiti: The Politics of Squalor." He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.

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