The Case for American Intervention in Haiti

May 15, 1994|By LAWRENCE E. HARRISON

'TC Our Haiti policy, which was disfigured by a huge blunder -- the embargo -- shortly after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide 2 1/2 years ago, has become a travesty driven by the politics of race. The only way the Clinton administration can salvage U.S. credibility and its own dignity is through an intervention that dismantles Haiti's military and police institutions.

The embargo blunder was the consequence of an exaggerated U.S. and Latin American concern for "democracy" that has overwhelmed our other interests in Haiti, above all the well-being of millions of desperately poor Haitians. I put "democracy" in quotes for several reasons:

* Since its independence in 1804, Haiti has not practiced the civic values that make democratic institutions work. This is not a case of "restoring democracy." Haiti's sole claim to democracy is that President Aristide was elected in 1990 by a substantial majority of voters.

* While that election must be respected, Father Aristide's credentials as a democrat are meager. He rode to power with essentially the same ideology as Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, including the same contempt for liberal political and economic institutions. Today, his Washington liaison staff includes a number of American "Saldalistas," still committed to the idea that U.S. imperialism lies behind the problems of Haiti and the Third World in general, and that utopian, Marxist "liberation theology" is the answer. (The term "Sandalistas" was derisively applied to American leftists who came to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista government.)

* During his eight months in office in 1991, Father Aristide displayed little respect for democratic norms. As a result, a large majority of political parties, not just on the right, but in the center and on the left, supported the coup, as did most labor organizations.

* While human rights abuses have clearly intensified since the coup, Father Aristide's human rights record was far from exemplary. He bears a considerable responsibility for the numerous lynchings that occurred during his administration. The liberal human rights organization Americas Watch noted, "By our count, there were at least 25 cases [of burning tire "necklacing"]. . . . The biggest problem is not that Aristide did nothing to stop these incidents, despite his tremendous moral prestige. But in the last couple of months of his presidency, he actually gave two speeches encouraging" the necklacing of opponents.

Against this backdrop of dubious democracy, the Organization of American States and, subsequently, the United Nations (at the prodding of the United States) should not have imposed the punishing embargo, now well into its third year, but should have relied on diplomacy, carrots and less destructive sticks, which would have left us at arm's length.

The embargo punishment leaves us with the moral responsibility for squeezing a country where most of the inhabitants were already living at the margin of survival.

As P. J. O'Rourke asked rhetorically in a recent Rolling Stone article: "What else but politics could create a situation where miserable poverty is being fought by making poor people as miserable as possible?"

The embargo is all the more questionable because some of the Latin American leaders who pushed for it, former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez foremost among them, may have been more interested in sending a message to their own militaries than in promoting democracy in Haiti. Before his recent impeachment, Mr. Perez was almost ousted twice by the Venezuelan military.

The costs of the embargo have been appalling:

* Thousands of Haitians, especially children, have died from the embargo's exacerbation of Haiti's chronic malnutrition and disease problems through food and medicine shortages, higher food and medicine prices, higher transportation costs and unemployment. We'll never know how many died, but the number is surely much higher than the number of victims of military/police violence.

* Tens of thousands of jobs have been wiped out in the two sectors that represent Haiti's only economic hope: tourism and employment-intensive industry.

* We have attempted to cushion the impact by feeding hundreds of thousands of Haitians. This has doubtlessly saved lives, but at what cost in terms of Haitian self-respect and self-reliance?

* We have opened ourselves wide to allegations of a double standard -- and racism -- in our foreign policy. Would we have invoked an embargo if the military had succeeded in ousting Mr. Perez in Venezuela, the second-most important source of our oil imports?

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