An anti-Aristide bias colors U.S. relations with Haiti

July 07, 1995|By Ron Daniels

DESPITE THE criticism of some members of Congress and the media, President Jean Bertrand Aristide has rightly called the recent election there a "major step forward toward democracy in country."

There is little question that the election was troubled by massive logistical problems and some irregularities. However, there is no credible evidence of a systematic effort to aid one political party over another. Republican carping reflects an anti-Aristide bias that runs through U.S. policy toward Haiti.

Led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, Republicans are calling for congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid if the election is not nullified. But what they fear is not a dearth of democracy, but an independent Haiti. They fear that democratic elections will solidify support for Aristide's Lavalas party, which bridles at control by U.S. governmental and business interests.

Haiti has been a safe haven for U.S. business interests since American troops invaded and occupied in 1918. Operating through a corrupt Haitian elite, the United States was able to effectively ensure that Haiti remained under American influence. The elite was protected by a U.S.-trained and installed military. Control, not democracy, has been the constant feature of U.S. relations with Haiti since 1918.

When the Haitian masses rose up against the brutal U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship in the late 1980s, the United States moved to accommodate change without disturbing the status quo. In 1990, American hopes rode on Marc L. Bazin, an economist and former Duvalier cabinet minister who broke away to form a new party. He proposed privatization and other economic principles that made him the darling of the elite in both the United States and Haiti.

However, just two months before the election, a populist priest named Jean Bertrand Aristide announced his candidacy, promising land reform, redistribution of wealth and economic policies free of U.S. and foreign domination.

Mr. Aristide was elected with nearly 70 percent of the vote; Mr. Bazin's coalition party won just 13 percent. Needless to say, this is not the outcome the United States had wanted; the democratic process had spun out of control of U.S. interests and into the hands of its rightful owners, the Haitian people.

From the outset Mr. Aristide was viewed with great suspicion by the United States, and the 1991 coup was not entirely unwelcome. Policy makers in Washington wondered how to restore democracy while neutralizing and diminishing the power and influence of Mr. Aristide and Lavalas. From 1991 through 1995, the Bush and Clinton administrations participated in a disinformation campaign against Mr. Aristide, and media coverage tended to reflect this bias.

The accord brokered by former President Jimmy Carter was calculated to neutralize Mr. Aristide by forcing him to relinquish the three and a half years of his presidency spent in exile. This left him only 18 months before the expiration of his term.

Since his return to power, however, Mr. Aristide clashed with the United States over the determination of the size of the Haitian army and over who will select and train the national police force. Also, the two sides disagree over the privatization of key Haitian industries like Telco, the government-run telephone agency. In each case he has resisted U.S. wishes to relinquish state power to the traditional sources of despotism in Haiti. As a result, Mr. Aristide remains an enormously popular figure with the Haitian people.

vTC The Haitian people are determined to use the democratic process to end "business as usual" as it has existed between Haiti and the United States since 1918. That's why the Republicans are upset.

If Republicans were interested in fair elections in our sphere of influence, then what of the Dominican Republic and Mexico? International observers have agreed for years that elections in the Dominican Republic have been stolen by President Juan Balanquer. And for decades Mexico has effectively been a one party dictatorship favoring the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

But there has been no demand by Senator Helms and company for these elections to be nullified. Indeed, the United States government maintains normal relations with the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

The Haitian people are fighting for self-determination and the right to shape models of democracy and development based on their own history, culture and national interests. It is in the best interest of our country to assist Haiti to fulfill its aspirations.

Ron Daniels is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He has recently returned from a fact finding mission to Haiti.

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