Can the Caribbean Community sort out the mess in Port au Prince?
By Larry Smith
In the words of one Haitian-American woman who remembers Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s election as Haiti’s first democratic president: "I went out there and was, like, screaming because I wanted him to be president. That was a risk, but I believed in him."
The 1990 election was a seminal event for Haiti, after almost two centuries of brutal dictatorships. But within a few months the army forced the new president into exile and unleashed another reign of terror, causing tens of thousands of poverty-stricken Haitians to flee to the Bahamas and the United States.
Critics blamed the Americans for Aristide’s overthrow because of his radical populist ideas, but he was recognised as president throughout his 21-month exile in Washington. And the US – fearing disorder and a continuing exodus of boat people – worked hard to put him back in office.
Before 1990, the United Nations had applied economic sanctions only twice, against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. But in 1993, prompted by the US, the UN imposed an embargo on Haiti, and authorized the use of all necessary means to facilitate the return of Aristide.
As a result, the former Roman Catholic priest became the first leader in the Western Hemisphere to be restored to office after being removed in a coup. Analysts described the US-brokered accord that led to his return as “a signal accomplishment of hemispheric peacemaking. It will also stand as an example of how much more effective the United States can be if it works with the UN machinery rather than opposes it.”
To enforce the accord, the Clinton administration dispatched such heavy hitters as former president Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn, and General Colin Powell to confront Haiti’s military junta and send them packing. Aristide returned to Haiti in October 1994, backed by a force of 20,000 American troops.
But the Haitian economy and infrastructure had been virtually destroyed by the military takeover and subsequent international embargo. The world community responded with pledges of a billion dollars to help stabilise the country, with the aid of UN peacekeepers.
Although he now lives in exile, former President Jean Aristide is still very popular in Haiti
Aristide served out the remainder of his five-year term and was constitutionally barred from running consecutively. But his friend and protege, Rene Preval, was elected in 1995 with a big majority. Preval, a pragmatic European-trained agronomist, had been Aristide’s prime minister at the time of the 1991 coup. He was Haiti's second democratically elected president.
And that’s when history began to repeat itself. At the end of Preval’s term in 2000, Aristide was re-elected with 92 per cent of the vote, although balloting was boycotted by major opposition groups and Western governments agreed that the parliamentary elections held a few months earlier had been rigged.
Nevertheless, it was the first time in the country's history that a full-term president peacefully transferred power to an incoming president. Aristide’s return to office produced another outpouring of emotion among the Haitian masses.
This was clearly evident in the Bahamas, where normally timid Haitian immigrants made a point of wearing pro-Aristide t-shirts and buttons. When the president visited Nassau shortly after his re-election thousands of Haitians mobbed the Church of God of Prophecy auditorium to hear him speak.
But the anger of the Haitian opposition produced a political stalemate that lasted throughout Aristide’s second term, with Western countries blocking international loans to force a compromise. As economic conditions worsened Aristide began ruling by decree, relying on thugs as other Haitian leaders before him had done. There were also credible charges that he and his associates were involved in drug trafficking.
The US pushed Aristide to deal with the opposition, and he eventually accepted the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) sponsored power-sharing plan. A high-level American delegation went to Port-au-Prince to sell the plan, but despite the direct involvement of Secretary of State Colin Powell and foreign ministers from France, Canada, the Organisation of American States and CARICOM, no compromise was reached.
"Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on the democratic opposition," a State Department official was reported as saying. "The administration sincerely believed there was a way to get a negotiated political settlement."
Eventually, an armed revolt broke out, and in February 2004 Haitian rebels were closing in on the capital. The US sent a public signal to Aristide that he should quit, and a few days later he fled aboard an American aircraft. A US diplomat ushered him to the plane, after getting his resignation in writing.
Aristide later claimed he had been abducted by the Americans and held captive by the French in Africa. CARICOM immediately withdrew its support and some US politicians portrayed the administration's actions as “racist”. Former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson said Aristide’s removal set “a dangerous precedent for democratically elected governments anywhere and everywhere."
Politicos throughout the region are convinced Aristide was kidnapped by the Bush administration to prevent his leftwing policies from closing Haiti to US "exploitation". The Americans say Aristide asked to leave when the US said it could no longer protect him.
There is some ambiguity over whether Aristide knew he was going to the Central African Republic before he got on the plane.
The following comment is typical: “The US made a big mistake aiding and abetting the overthrow of Haiti's elected president by a bunch of cutthroats. It is exactly the wrong signal to send. Aristide was not perfect by any means but I don't believe half the demonizing propaganda put out about him. If the
Haitians want a leftist government for the time being, let them have it.”
The Americans argue with some justification that Aristide squandered his chance. Their view goes something like this: “We spent a lot of time and effort restoring him to power the first time and he did such a lousy job that we could not, in good conscience, waste any more resources on him.”
For the last three years, the Bahamas has worked within the CARICOM framework in its dealings with Haiti. Relations were never officially broken, but our embassy in Port-au-Prince remained inactive, to the annoyance of the US. Ambassador Newry is not likely to return until after Preval is sworn in as president.
But in the background lurks the ever-present reality that we really have no choice in the matter. In fact, Haiti is both our biggest foreign, and our biggest domestic, policy problem - as the following comment from a diplomatic source demonstrates:
President Preval's supporters celeberate during his swearing-in ceremony back in May
“We should continue to engage Haiti, and seek to negotiate a new bilateral agreement covering immigration, investment, trade and cultural matters. There is no way that we can avoid it, so we should implement policies that would mitigate the more damaging effects of Haiti's outward migration.”
After Aristide’s undignified departure, the interim government (led by a supreme court judge) requested UN intervention, and for the past two years Brazil has led a UN force trying to keep order in Haiti. Gerard LaTortue, a former UN economist, was named interim prime minister, but he was regarded as a puppet by many, and CARICOM bitterly resisted American pleas to recognise and support his government.
Many regional leaders are far more radical than most Bahamian politicians, and this is one of the drawbacks we face when trying to play geopolitics with international blocs like CARICOM. Our interests do not always coincide. For example, Bahamian requests for $50 million in US funding for a Defence Force base in Inagua to prevent Haitian immigration are being met with scepticism by American officials.
But fast forward to the beginning of this year and the ice is beginning to melt, although CARICOM is still deeply divided over Haiti. In February, Aristide’s old sidekick, Rene Preval was re-elected president, offering an opportunity for CARICOM to repair strained relations with the US. The meeting with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Nassau recently was the next-to-last stage in this process.
During Rice’s meeting with regional leaders, it was agreed that the US would work with President-elect Preval, and continue to provide financial resources to Haiti, while CARICOM would recognise the new government, invite Haiti to resume its participation as a member, and help to rebuild democratic institutions.
The odds are not encouraging.
Since 1990 Haiti has suffered two coups leading to years of exile for the elected president, perpetual political gridlock, and very little progress on the root causes of the country’s misery. Time will tell whether President-elect Preval can escape this cycle of instability.
Caribbean countries’ main concerns are to see Haiti firmly established on a democratic path, which will require considerable institution-building and a lot of donor funding; to see Haiti begin to grow so that it's citizens remain at home; and to enable Haiti at some point to participate in regional integration efforts.
“This is a tall order,” one diplomat said. “But not to try, is to condemn the people of Haiti to a life at the margins.”
Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.
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