Suspense in Haiti, Paradox in Washington

September 22, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--The fun has only begun in Haiti, a place easier to get to than to leave. The purpose of the American intervention is to ''restore'' democracy. The democracy that previously existed in Haiti consisted of one free election, producing a president overthrown nine months later. The United States is once again nominally committed to nation-building, at which it has proved to have no talent whatever.

The Clinton administration's ambition is quickly to hand over to international authority and get out. It is unlikely to find a competent authority to which to hand over. The alternative to staying will be to scuttle -- as in Somalia, Lebanon in 1983, Vietnam in 1973. The alternative to scuttle will be to assume responsibility for a revolution.

The invasion itself, bizarrely transformed into a mission of cooperation with the Haitian army, recalled the floodlit landing of face-blackened Marines in Somalia 21 months ago. I do not mean that remark as an implied forecast, although it should not be forgotten that Washington's well-intentioned intervention in Haiti in 1915 eventually became a guerrilla war that produced more than 40,000 deaths before the Americans withdrew 19 years later.

The merit of the Carter-Powell-Nunn agreement is that it prevented fighting and could be presented to the public as an American success. The Haitian generals, previously said by Washington to be criminals and putschists, were rehabilitated by Jimmy Carter, Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn as honorable men and valid interlocutors, with whom, until their expected retirement in mid-October, the United States Army will cooperate in mutual respect.

The position of a badly disappointed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide remains unclear, despite Mr. Clinton's assurance that in due course he can go home to reclaim the presidency. The present agreement is essentially the one the United States reached with Gen. Raoul Cedras at Governors Island in New York in July 1993, which was never carried out by the Haitian side.

Today American troops will supposedly see that the agreement is applied. But as Haiti's leaders understand, American withdrawal already is demanded by Congress and public

opinion. They may reasonably conclude that they have only to be patient.

The fundamental problem of the distribution of power in Haiti has not been addressed in the American debate. Administration policy is driven by the Haitian-refugee issue and by the Black Congressional Caucus. The caucus tends to identify the problem as a simple matter of bad generals overturning a democratically elected president.

From that it would logically follow that restoring the president and retiring the generals will solve the problem -- which, of course, it will not.

Haiti -- which is one of the poorest countries in the world and 45 percent illiterate, whose average level of schooling is less than two years -- is divided between a black peasantry, the descendants of slaves, who are 95 percent of the population, and a ruling 5 percent composed of mulattos and whites.

This minority has sometimes ruled the country directly, and sometimes -- as in the Duvalier years -- has collaborated with a dictator from the black majority. It includes the families who control such industry as the country possesses and its international trade and finance. New investment from the United States, or anywhere else, will inevitably deal with these people, as has always been the case in the past.

The army is the principal organized force in the nation. The American government would like to find a more democratic leadership in its ranks, to support President Aristide or his successor. But the essential problem is that the army, and its allies in the existing economic leadership of the country, are the natural enemies of President Aristide.

The popularity of Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- populist preacher, liberation priest -- comes from his promise to carry out a revolutionary transfer of power in Haiti, taking it from the people who have always possessed it and giving it to the suffering poor. He and his supporters claim that this can be done peacefully (whether they really believe this or not).

The elites of the country have recognized the threat. They overturned President Aristide in 1991. They don't want him back. He in turn knows that he, and the cause he represents, can never be secure so long as his enemies have the capacity to overturn him again.

The situation in Haiti is a suspended revolution, waiting since 1991 to be completed. The situation in Washington is a paradox. Haiti's counter-revolutionary army and economic leadership now are blocked by the United States, which promises to reinstall a revolutionary in Haiti's presidential palace. At the same time, the United States does not want the revolution.

All of this may end very badly, notably for Mr. Clinton and the Democrats. The chance of a better ending for the Haitians is slight, but it exists.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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