Waiting for Aristide

October 14, 1994

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns to a Haiti tomorrow that for a brief, turbulent interlude has been completely under the control of Americans he once accused of wanting "to hold our guts in their hands," of seeking to make Haiti "economically, politically and culturally dependent." Yet it is one of the ironies of the Haitian situation that his return from exile has been made possible only by making Haiti's dependency on the United States near-total. Twenty thousand American troops are the muscle of law and order; the American Embassy is effectively the seat of government.

There was a time, during the days when he was seeking and winning power in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when Mr. Aristide would have viewed these developments as confirmation his worst suspicions. Perhaps in paranoid moments he still does. But three years of exile in Washington, where he could be a close observer of Bush and Clinton gyrations, should have convinced him that what this country most wants of Haiti is tranquillity at minimal cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

Elements in American society and government over many decades have been quite willing to achieve this aim through alliance with the mulatto elite and the military satraps who have ruled and exploited the black masses throughout Haitian history. But during his Washington sojourn, Mr. Aristide was witness to another impulse in American political life -- one that identified with his democratic populism and was willing to overlook his reliance on mob action to achieve his objectives.

That the Congressional Black Caucus was at the forefront of a cause that, in time, goaded the Clinton administration to overthrow the junta that had overturned the Aristide government in 1991 was more a matter of U.S. than Haitian politics.

But with luck and Jimmy Carter, events fell into place in mid-September for Mr. Aristide. American power not only opened the way for his return, but did so without his having to bear the onus of relying, in Gen. Colin Powell's words, on American youngsters killing Haitian youngsters.

With Mr. Aristide's arrival in Port-au-Prince, the brief U.S. interregnum will end but President Clinton's reliance on the Haitian president's good behavior will not. If Haiti explodes into violence or if Mr. Aristide revives his anti-American rhetoric, the accolades bestowed on the occupation by an American press that largely questioned this use of American power will be swiftly withdrawn.

In short, Mr. Clinton is very much a hostage to Mr. Aristide. Given Mr. Aristide's past behavior, this is an uncomfortable position for an American politician. However, it could pay dividends provided U.S. aid palpably rescues a failed economy, international peacekeepers relieve U.S. garrisons in fairly short order and -- most important -- Mr. Aristide takes to heart the message of reconciliation, responsibility, democracy and free markets conveyed to him last week by South Africa's President Nelson Mandela, a man who should know.

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