For Any Solution to Haiti, U.S. Must Include Aristide

<i> Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" (Simon and Schuster)</i>

The Haitian problem is growing thornier by the minute. Amid a deluge of proposals to end it, the issues that caused the crisis are growing clearer: an entrenched business elite unwilling to part with an iota of its power nor share a penny from its pocketbook; a military that traditionally acts as paid agent of the business elite’s agenda; an overwhelming majority of poor and disenfranchised who hoped change would come when they elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a president unique in Haiti’s history because he represented the people’s interests, and a large contingent of jobless, uneducated young toughs who see no hope for a future and are willing to join whatever death squad will pay for a house, a month’s meals or a bottle of rum.

Aristide’s election was supposed to have produced a peaceful overthrow of the status quo, but because he went about changing things in Haiti, and didn’t do it slowly or subtly enough, he was overthrown instead, taking things in Haiti back to square one--to square zero, in fact. He tried to purge and professionalize the military, to tax businesses, to eliminate the drug trade, and to grant workers certain basic rights. These reforms, which seem elementary, are exactly what the elite in Haiti will not stand for.

Here are some of the amusing and not so amusing solutions being bandied about in Washington:


* Bay of Pigs Jr. Since Bay of Pigs Sr. worked so well. This solution proposes that the U.S. government--rather than send its own boys--arm a group of Haitian exiles and send them in boats to retake Haiti and install a new government. The question is, what group of Haitians would the Americans arm? There are so many. Taking a leaf from the Bay of Pigs, there are the crazed right-wingers; there are the crazed left-wingers (split, of course, into many warring cells); there are Christian groups and voodoo groups, friends of the United States and avowed anti-Americans. There are relatives of the elite, groups of professionals (send in the doctors) and people militating for a mass movement of the proletariat (as if Haiti had one). There are Aristide supporters, former Aristide supporters and anti-anti-Aristide supporters. You choose.

* The Black King of La Gonave. This is my personal favorite, actually mentioned for two days running in the national press. (This proposal, at least, has a historical precedent, sort of: During the U.S. occupation of Haiti, Marine Lt. Faustin Wirkus of Pennsylvania, civil administrator of La Gonave, a barren and impoverished Haitian island about 40 miles from Port-au-Prince, was crowned king by the people there, and was known as “The White King of La Gonave.”)

The Black King solution proposes that Aristide should be flown to La Gonave. There, he should gather and organize his people for an armed attack on the main land. The United States could then remove itself from the continuing crisis.

Unfortunately for Aristide and the men and women he would need to take back Port-au-Prince, there is not enough drinking water or food on La Gonave now to support the current population. This plan also seems to posit that Aristide’s physical removal from the United States would somehow enable Washington to wash its hands of the matter. “You’re on your own now” is the theory.

But the United States has never let the Haitians go it alone. America has been involved in Haiti since the beginning--since Haitian slaves declared independence from France in 1804, while the United States still relied on slavery ; since United Fruit and the National City Bank became major players on the island; since the United States invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915-1934; since the Cold War, when we supported the cold-blooded dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier as a reasonable alternative to an imperceptible communist threat; since the fall of his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, in 1986, when we supported the Haitian military as a force for democracy. And now, since the post-Aristide era, when the United States has obfuscated and generally encouraged an atmosphere in which the military regime believed it had the tacit support of Washington and the international community.

* Think Tank Option. Form a multi-party interim government that would permit a U.N. force to oversee next year’s elections and stay in place afterward to protect the results.

If you’re just reading along, you don’t notice how no one says who is going to form this new government. You don’t notice that no one mentions the military high command stepping down. You don’t notice that justice is not mentioned in this high-minded-sounding solution, nor the elected government of Aristide. You don’t notice how that omission implies an amnesty for crimes committed by death squads and the military in the coup aftermath (some 3,000 killed). You don’t notice that “multiparty” government in a country where parties are tiny staffs of self-important politicians really means a U.S.-led and -directed “transition” committee. You don’t notice that next year’s elections are presidential elections in which Aristide cannot constitutionally run, because Haitian law does not permit successive terms for the president. You aren’t made aware that there is hardly a Haitian who would vote in such elections.

Most of all, you don’t notice that the Think Tank Option has been the U.S. government’s underlying solution to the Haitian crisis all along, and that the only way it could work with the high command in place is at the whim of the generals, as a tool of their policies.

Which are, in case anyone has forgotten: to wipe out all opposition; to destroy the progressive movement for the next generation or two; to prohibit the return of Aristide by any means necessary; to end literacy, education and health care for the Haitian people, and to enrich themselves.

What all these solutions share is a subtle but unmistakable plan to dump Aristide. Yet Aristide must be a willing part of any solution, or it will not be a real solution. To the Haitian voter, Aristide is the living symbol of Haitian democracy. Any plan that excludes him excludes democracy, as far as they are concerned.

This has been the Bush and Clinton administrations’ problem: They don’t like Aristide, but they can’t create anything even faintly legitimate without him. So, to solve the Haitian problem, the Americans have to do something they don’t want to do: reinstate Aristide. This has been the reason for the stalemate in U.S. policy, and why the generals perceived that Washington was not really against them.

The two most important goals for any real solution are the high command’s resignation from the Haitian Army and Aristide’s reinstatement. For more than two years, the Haitian business elite has been paying lobbyists to get the sanctions lifted--thus one must believe the sanctions are working. The Clinton Administration is now trying some of the right things: tightening U.N. sanctions; pressuring President Joachim N. Balaguer of the Dominican Republic to close his border with Haiti where goods banned by the sanctions are still pouring through.

Now the Administration should do more. Take away the military’s motive for staying. (Hugh profits from contraband are enriching them.) Bomb the new highway that brings oil and other contraband from the border to Port-au-Prince. Include families of the elite in the ban on visas and the freezing of assets. Shut down commercial as well as non-commercial air traffic to Haiti. Help Aristide’s government set up an offshore radio station to provide Haitians with information and give them hope. Convince Balaguer--by threatening an aid cutoff or elimination of the Dominican Republic’s special sugar-trade status--to allow a multilateral force to patrol the border.

Long before military intervention becomes necessary, the high command will step aside--though it might take some months of tough talk and tougher measures. Is the Clinton Administration capable of maintaining a steady course with this policy, or will it cave to expediency and hope that a fast military action (a la Panama) will give it a needed boost in public opinion? Because the Administration’s recent, positive maneuvering on the Haiti front has been so timid, so lacking in moral backbone, the long, painful crisis goes on.*