Current Haiti crisis reflects a decade of U.S. policy vacillation

American actions failed to foster development of democratic institutions

March 02, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The crisis that pulled American troops back into Haiti has its roots in a decade of failure for which few escape blame - not Jean-Bertrand Aristide, not his political opposition, and not the administrations of Bill Clinton or President Bush.

Aristide's commitment to democracy and reform - even his mental health - were called into question well before Clinton dispatched 20,000 troops in 1994 to reverse a military coup that had driven him from power.

Although he had been overwhelmingly elected in 1990 and was a hero to Haiti's poor masses, the former Catholic priest's record as a populist was dotted with instances of incitement to violence that frightened the country's business elite and the military.

A hotly debated Central Intelligence Agency assessment at the time labeled him mentally unstable.

Back in power

Once he was restored to power in 1994, with his country drawing international aid, it wasn't long before Aristide began to lose even the limited faith that American and other world leaders placed in him.

James Morrell, head of the Haiti Democracy Project, says that only the continued presence of U.S. troops in the country prevented Aristide from trying to remain in office after his term legally expired in 1995. Members of his palace guard were suspected of involvement in a political assassination in that same year.

Aristide remained a power behind the scenes while his hand-picked successor, Rene Preval, served as president until 2000. Legislative elections that year were marked by fraud widely attributed to Aristide's party, prompting the opposition to boycott the presidential vote later that year that returned him to power.

Drug trafficking

Aristide's second term was marred by gang violence, intimidation of the press and an overall decline in the rule of law, including what the United States charges has been government involvement in narcotics trafficking.

The political opposition's record is marked by divisions and tactical errors that hindered its effectiveness, analysts said.

So deeply is mistrust embedded in Haiti's politics that the opposition repeatedly balked at a power-sharing agreement with Aristide despite strong pressure from Organization of American States mediators.

"The opposition was unwilling to compromise on Aristide's resignation for three years. Ultimately their view prevailed," says Dan Erikson of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Luigi Einaudi, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said the opposition "was hoping for armed intervention from the United States or somebody else to change things."

In recent months, the opposition became at least tacitly supportive of the thugs who were threatening to oust Aristide by force. As the violent campaign gained strength, they dug in their heels against a power-sharing agreement with Aristide to the point where strong U.S. pressure couldn't budge them.

"The opposition, while made up of people who are honest and moderate, became just as dependent on criminal elements," says James F. Dobbins, a longtime U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter who was special envoy to Haiti during the 1990s.

But a key problem in Haiti, a number of analysts say, is the absence of durable institutions that would allow democracy to take hold. American inaction, or only partial action, they say, prolonged this vacuum.

Engage, withdraw

"Over the last decade, the U.S. approach to Haiti has vacillated between aggressive engagement that eventually falls prey to disappointing results, and partial withdrawal that allows the country's woes to multiply until heightened involvement again becomes necessary," Erikson wrote in a recent paper, "The Haiti Dilemma."

Dobbins, who has written a critical study of nation-building in Haiti, says the United States failed to cement the gains made after Clinton sent in U.S. troops a decade ago.

"American efforts to stabilize Haiti were too modest in scope, scale and duration to have a lasting impact," Dobbins said. Once American troops departed the country in 1996, American aid to Haiti dropped to the same level that prevailed during the military dictatorship that the United States pushed out two years earlier.

Dobbins also said U.S. and troops from other countries pulled out too fast, before a competent administration could form and democratic and economic reforms could take root.

Aid cutoff backfires

He and others said the cutoff of all outside economic aid in 2000, Clinton's final year in office, backfired. It was designed as a pressure tactic on Aristide to reform, but it ended up making him even less able to deliver on his promises and even more dependent on armed gangs to stay in power, Dobbins said.

The Bush administration prolonged the aid cutoff and compounded it with lack of consistent effort, several analysts said. Without a strong American diplomatic role, the OAS had little leverage to exert pressure on either Aristide or the opposition.

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