History Asks Forcefulness on Haiti

<i> Alex Stepick is a visiting associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Florida International University, Miami</i>

The provisional government of Haiti dashed the democratic aspirations of the Haitian people when it abolished the Electoral Council and let the army and civilian thugs intimidate, maim and kill Haitians trying to vote in the country’s first elections in 30 years. After continued violence, calls for the government council to resign and threats of foreign intervention, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy has asked for the reestablishment of the Electoral Council.

U.S. officials expressed shock, condemned the acts and canceled aid. The disruption of Haiti’s elections frustrated both the hopes of Haitians and their efforts to reestablish democracy in the hemisphere’s second-oldest republic. It also revealed U.S. ignorance of Haitian history.

Events of the past two years in Haiti--the departure of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, a slow-moving interim government, sporadic anarchy and a failed election--parallel events that produced the regime of Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

In 1956 dictator Paul Magloire fled the country amid accusations of profound corruption. In his wake a provisional government arose that promised but did not deliver reforms. Strikes repeatedly shut down the nation’s commerce, and bombs exploded. One election was postponed, and a leading presidential candidate was forced into exile--after which the army massacred many of his supporters.


The army took control of the provisional government, proclaiming neutrality but ultimately supporting Duvalier. He won the election and soon moved against his opponents, establishing a reign of terror and corruption that, continued by his son, lasted nearly 30 years.

And Duvalier knew how to consolidate U.S. support. In 1964 he raised the specter of communism and refused to vote for the expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States unless the United States supported his government.

Namphy appears to be a keen student of history. He has promised that elections will still be held, while he has worked diligently to discourage popular participation in them. He is clearly trying to manipulate the election process to get what he, the army and the Duvalierists want. They want a president who is either one of them or whom they control. This happened 30 years ago. They have, they can and they will try the same thing now, even with a new election council and even if there were a new provisional government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has done little to support Haiti’s democratic aspirations. During the past year it provided $1.6 million in military aid, and it has failed to publicly condemn the government’s lack of support for the Electoral Council. Popular Haitian opinion has always distrusted the Namphy government. But, from the point of view of the Haitian government, the U.S. position could be seen as support for policies that increasingly excluded civic and political groups from the electoral process.


The United States has now suspended aid to Haiti, but virtually all of this year’s allotment has already been spent. U.S. officials maintain that the Haitian government remains committed to democracy.

The most important and immediate lesson that we must learn from Haitian history is that the army can follow repression with an apparent commitment to democracy masking manipulated elections. The result is likely to establish civilian rule as harsh and anti-democratic as military rule.

Haitian history and Sunday’s events have proved that Namphy’s military government cannot be trusted to implement free and fair elections. If it does go forward with elections, it will most likely change the rules so that former Duvalierists can run and the leading popular candidates cannot win. Violence and intimidation may force some candidates--probably the most popular, like Sylvio Claude, Gerard Gourgue and Marc Bazin--to withdraw. To provide the illusion of freeness and fairness, less-popular candidates may be permitted to continue. And if outsiders complain too loudly, the government can claim that these measures are necessary to avoid the possibility of communists taking over.

Haiti is neither Nicaragua nor Grenada. Haitians still remember with distaste the U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1934. They no more want a U.S. occupation of Haiti than they want a continuation of Duvalierism without Duvalier.


The Reagan Administration and other Western nations with a strong interest in Haiti, especially Canada and France, must quickly alter their policies from that of quiet diplomacy and private urgings for democracy to one that publicly and strongly demands free and fair elections. They must condemn the government-sanctioned terror that sabotaged Sunday’s voting and sporadically continues.

The Western nations should also suspend aid to Haiti and promise its resumption only on the completion of genuinely democratic elections. Haiti is more dependent on foreign aid than is any other nation in the Western Hemisphere. While some argue that humanitarian aid should continue, corruption diverts the majority of aid to support the military and Duvalierists.

These measures may not force the military and the Duvalierists to change their course of strangling democratic hopes. But if the United States and other nations fail to take these steps, Haiti and its people will have their democratic aspirations crushed, and likely will suffer another era of repression and corruption.