The Delusion That Haiti's Salvation Is in Our Power

September 19, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

LONDON — London. -- Britain has uneasily agreed to cooperate in President Clinton's actions toward Haiti, but this is only to cling to the tattered remnant of the special relationship. No one here, or in Paris, or anywhere else in Europe, really wants to be involved in the Haiti affair.

Haiti is at the same time insignificant and immense -- for what it means in Caribbean history, and has meant in the history of Europe and the United States as well.

Haiti's was the only successful slave revolt in history, carried out under the leadership of one of the most remarkable men of the epoch, Toussaint L'Ouverture. But Haiti's success in expelling European control led it to poverty, struggle between mulattoes and blacks, and lastingly oppressive government, leading up to the American intervention of 1915 and an occupation that lasted until 1934 (with U.S. fiscal control until 1947). What then followed was the populist Duvalier family dictatorship that continued until 1986.

Because of its coffee and sugar production, Haiti in 1789 was the most profitable colony in the world, ''the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation,'' as C.L.R. James wrote in his classic 1938 history of the Haitian revolution, ''The Black Jacobins.''

''In August 1791, after two years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in San Domingo, the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte's brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte's expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day.''

It was, after the United States itself, the second independent nation in the Western hemisphere. Does Bill Clinton know anything about this history? As with Cuba, he is making foreign policy in order to please domestic political constituencies. To do so is appallingly dangerous.

Certainly the feeble Haitian army is not going to throw an absurdly enormous American invasion force into the sea. The Haitian public voted for Jean-Bertrand Aristide as their president; his restoration ought to please them -- in theory, at least. But what happens after an invasion is what counts -- as the Clinton administration understands, but without providing an adequate answer.

Supposedly the Caribbean military forces recruited to aid this invasion would police the invasion's aftermath, and then the United Nations would take over. However, the U.N. has become the warehouse for insoluble problems, and its capacity for continuing to function as such must be questioned.

The bones of the problem are the following: The only tangible interest the United States has with respect to contemporary Haiti is that its people do not become electorally encumbrant refugees in sensitive U.S. voting districts.

Our moral interest in Haiti is real but in essence no different than our moral responsibility with respect to genocide in Rwanda or civil struggle in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is less than in the last case, since the U.S. once armed and sustained factions in Afghanistan's continuing war.

There is a certain American historical responsibility for what has happened to Haiti, but not, I think, a large one. France's, surely, is larger, as the crucial colonizing power. The United States, under Thomas Jefferson, supported the Haitian revolution. American efforts to support democratic reforms in the country have been real, if tainted by economic interest.

The belief that a new invasion and occupation -- however brief -- will restore lasting democracy in Haiti has slender foundation. Administration officials, like Anthony Lake, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, say that ''a new wave of democracy [is] sweeping over this hemisphere,'' and that Haiti will be swept up by this wave. This is cant, or delusion.

More likely is that an old clash between black peasantry and mulatto bourgeoisie, the lack of any substantial ''civil society'' in Haiti, its lack of an educated and public-minded middle class prepared to assume political responsibility in the general interest, condemns it to new despotisms, in which the real alternatives are between the bad and the worse.

The United States at best can influence the outcome toward the less brutal. But it may easily find itself -- as in the past, and as in the country's other Caribbean and Central American interventions -- in an unpalatable but seemingly necessary compromise with a new dictatorship, having intervened in the domestic struggle and worsened it.

As for Mr. Clinton's political fortunes, the notion that an American victory over the Haitian army would in November cause American voters to be overcome by patriotic gratitude and re-elect a Democratic Congress is a joke. To re-elect and reunite his party, Mr. Clinton needs not a mini-victory over General Cedras but a real victory over obstinate Democratic as well as Republican opposition to his health bill and the rest of the domestic reform program he was elected to accomplish.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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