Our failure in Haiti

May 09, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

IN THAT troubled spring of 1965, I abandoned the revolution in the Dominican Republic for a couple of days to go over to neighboring Haiti.

I nearly threw up that first afternoon when I saw Haitian soldiers beating children back from the president's white palace with baseball bats.

The brutal dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier was still in power then. That strange, awful man, who had "scientifically" studied his people as a respected anthropologist, used voodoo in the basement of his pure white palace while he tortured his many enemies there.

When I finally returned, in 1982, the greatest threat to tragic Haiti was a different one: The land was dying. I talked with American AID officials about how all the topsoil was being eroded away through the tragic overuse of the land by poor peasants.

"Triage is not something that is 'going to' happen here," Harlan Hobgood, the dedicated director of the Agency for International Development, told me then, referring to the controversial idea that some poor countries would have to be thrown out of the human and ecological lifeboat so that human energies could be applied to those that could make it. "It is happening now," he said.

By last spring in Port-au-Prince, the circle had come full round. This time, with the country in the grip of still another horrendous military dictatorship, I came upon an anomalously prosperous Lebanese-Haitian trader, Elias Cassis.

"Madame," Mr. Cassis said to me, "this country does not exist."

The man was right, of course. The Haitians' own native-born tyrants had first done their part. Then the poor Haitians in their misery raped the very land they depended upon. And finally, the policies of the United States and the United Nations, designed to bring back the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had destroyed the minor industries (such as baseballs and mitts) and totally impoverished the country.

And so now? I have argued from the onset of this most recent depredation in Haiti -- the bitter conflict between Mr. Aristide and the military -- that, if we are serious about Haiti, some country or power must "recolonize" it.

I did not mean colonization in the old term, to oppress other people, but in a new sense: to save them. President Clinton seemed to back into this position in recent days, saying that he had "not ruled out the use of power in Haiti."

He also said rather clearly that "we ought to change our policy. It hasn't worked." He added that he understood the hunger strike of TransAfrica Forum activist Randall Robinson, protesting American Haiti policy, which caused Mr. Robinson to sniff, "To have the president suggest that the policy should change and I should stay out there on a hunger strike while he abdicates his responsibility is deeply disturbing!"

Should the United States actually consider using force in Haiti? Only this week, our top diplomatic negotiator, Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, resigned, protesting the idea. President George Bush warned against it, and the Pentagon is extremely wary of it. Meanwhile, to buy time, President Clinton urged a two-week period in which to try even more extreme sanctions against imports to punish the Haitian military, and plans were underfoot to send in more U.N. human rights monitors.

This is all nonsense. The original human rights monitors fled when "negotiations" fell through (leaving behind those Haitians who worked with them, who were ever so helpfully pinpointed for the military to wipe out. The only solution is still more of that same embargo that has all but destroyed the country. It makes one wonder what asylum one is working in.

So what is there left to say in such a patchwork of diplomatic failures? Ethically, we have not only a real national interest in Haiti (as we did not in Somalia), but also a responsibility. American Marines, after all, veritably ruled the country from 1915 to 1934. Haiti, part of the Western Hemisphere, is important in many ways, in particular in terms of massive immigration.

One can understand the real hesitance of the American military in not wanting to get into a morass in Haiti. On the other hand, as one top-level American commander told me: "We could take over that military during lunch hour. The question is: What next?"

I would answer: Remember that we did reform and transform the Dominican military after the 1965 revolution; we do know how to do these things. The question today is one of will.

Let me offer a painfully obvious proposal: If we do not want ever to get involved in these crises in serious power terms, then let us stay out from the beginning.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.