Beleaguered Haiti's future is full of dangers

December 10, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- Graham Greene's great novel, ''The Comedians,'' set in the Haiti of dictator Papa Doc, gives some support to the artist's pious hope that ''a writer is not so powerless as he usually feels, and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.''

How else to explain how this half of a Caribbean island gets more press than it deserves? Moreover, it is, apart from Bosnia, the one area of the world that gets both a United Nations and a United States peacekeeping presence.

It is in part the legacy of Graham Greene; it is partly the fascination with the lurid; but it is also, as it was for Central America in the last decade, because it is in America's own backyard, with the added issue that when the politics and economics of this impoverished ''vast wrinkled wasteland'' go wrong the people take to their boats, their rafts, their planks of wood and make for Florida.

Caste system

It's three years now since 22,000 U.S. soldiers were dropped on Haiti in an attempt to restore democracy and reinstate the deposed president, ex-priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It was the second time this century the Americans had gone in. The first was in 1915. That occupation lasted 19 years. The Americans built roads and the island's first water and telephone system. And, since most of the troops were white Southerners, reinforced Haiti's already rigid racial caste lines, where every faint shade of lightness puts you higher on the pecking order.

But when the Americans left, the system reverted to its old ways-- political thuggery, a farrago of tyrants, 29 dictators assassinated or overthrown in two centuries. It remained that way through the reign of Papa Doc, Francois Duvalier, to that of his son, Jean-Claude, Baby Doc. Only then did revolt bring some release. There was a brief interlude of democracy, followed by more blood, repression and mayhem. Then, finally, the election of the former priest-militant, his ouster by the generals and then the American-imposed (this time with the United Nations) democracy.

Recently, 1,200 troops began their departure. Left behind now are 300 U.N. civilian police mentors who will stay on, probably until the critical presidential elections next year.

The influence of the American-led occupation will continue, much of it benign -- new schools built by U.S. soldiers, medical and police training by other U.N. contingents. But there is also a malign residue, centering on the role of the CIA. Revelations in the magazine The Nation, on CBS' ''60 Minutes,'' on NBC news and in the authoritative World Policy Journal have brought before the American public compelling evidence that anti-democracy thugs were on the CIA payroll, sometimes acting contrary to White House policy.

No wonder, after such revelations, along with those in Guatemala which showed that the CIA had been close to elements of the military responsible for the notorious death squads, that President Clinton wanted his own man to head the CIA, former national security adviser Tony Lake. It was not a surprise that he was unable to win confirmation in the U.S. Senate, an institution that prefers not to rock the CIA boat.

The danger today is twofold. First, that the deposed military -- such as former Haitian army boss, Gen. Jean-Claude Duperval, now resident in Florida -- still have ambitions of overthrowing the democratic order and restoring the traditional tyranny that rules the poor and profits only an elite -- and that this is done with a nod and a wink from friends in the CIA.

Second, that Washington, fearful that Mr. Aristide, the man they perceive as a strident leftist, may triumph when he runs for another term of office next year, will weaken its resolve to keep Haiti's politics on the straight and narrow.

But the Americans have always misunderstood Mr. Aristide's leftism. They see what they regard as an overemphasis on redistribution and an underemphasis on privatization. They see a man who plays to the crowd, who, once the United Nations and the Americans are out, will over-spend and run the country into the ground.

They do not see in such sharp focus the years of an upper-middle class stripping the poor majority of the little they had, nor of entrepreneurs waiting to buy up state assets at knock-down prices and turn them into price-rigging monopolies that gouge the populace. Nor do they put a price on the way Mr. Aristide has lifted the eyes of the downtrodden off the ground.

License goons

Having come this far, for the Americans to begin to equivocate on the legitimacy of the ballot would undo all the good work that has been done. It would re-license the goons and signal those in the CIA who prefer the old order.

Haiti -- dangerous yesterday, dangerous today -- will, thanks to Graham Greene, always hold the world's attention. This is probably why, in the end, Washington will continue, for all its reservations, to stay the democratic course. The pen, on some occasions, is indeed mightier than the sword.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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