U.S. Regards Aristide as Haiti’s Real Problem

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

On the night of Sept. 28, 1991, came a moment that has determined the sorry course of U.S. policy toward Haiti for the past three years. It was not the moment when Haitian army men surrounded the presidential palace and forced elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide into military custody. Nor was it the moment, hours later, when Aristide was hustled out of the country at the airport (formerly Francois Duvalier International Airport) with a pat-on-the-back goodby from the U.S. ambassador. The decisive moment for U.S. policy came when the military men holding Aristide failed to kill him, for whatever reason.

How they all must look back with regret on those moments when they had him in their hands and let him slip away. How the Americans must bemoan the judgment they made that Aristide must be spared. (After all, they must think to themselves, a man as mild as Salvador Allende died in the coup that overthrew his government in Chile, so why not the wild-eyed Aristide?) How the Haitian military must be kicking itself.

For it is Aristide and all that he embodies for the Haitian people in the form of one not particularly majestic man--he embodies the dignity of the peasant and the slum dweller; he is the result of Haiti’s only real election, and, as a symbol of democracy, he stands for equality among Haitians; he represents the right of average Haitians to a better life--that has stood in the way of an easy solution to the Haitian crisis.

Since the night Aristide did not die, the Americans have been wrestling with a dilemma. They want to end the crisis (and so stop the flow of refugees), but they don’t want to reinstate Aristide. As far as the U.S. foreign-policy Establishment is concerned, he is the sworn enemy of America, a rabid leftist, a nationalizing, communizing, socializing revolutionary and, more than that, the least likely person in history that they would agree to go to war for.


So why are we considering going to war to reinstate Aristide?

Because Aristide is a necessary part of the solution--both in Haiti and in terms of the international debate. In the end, only as a small part of a huge military project has the Clinton Administration been able to make Aristide’s reinstatement palatable to the U.S. foreign-policy Establishment and the Haitian elite. Precisely because of all that Aristide represents to the Haitian people, no one (except the 67% who voted for him) wants him back. This is why the Haitian generals have felt secure in not budging an inch for a negotiated settlement. They understood that the United States was in no way committed to a diplomatic solution, because such a solution would provide no excuse for the kind of control mechanisms the Haitian elite and its U.S. friends want to impose on any Aristide administration.

It is widely feared among U.S. policy-makers that a returned Aristide, even surrounded by a “security” force of, say 250 U.N. peacekeepers, would be uncontrollable. It is pretty much clear that Aristide, no matter how hard he tried, would have difficulty curbing the understandable anger of his compatriots, which would manifest itself--as usual in Haiti with almost every transfer of power, except when Aristide was elected--in a purge of the thugs in the falling regime. Moreover, such a purge might lead not only to death and destruction of property but might signal actual change in the Haitian status quo--change that Aristide was trying to bring about by peaceful means--and that is intolerable to those who have been guiding U.S. Haiti policy.

Let’s be clear about the uses of the next intervention in Haiti. The future U.S.-led intervention force of 15,000 troops--to which the United Nations has given its stamp of approval--is a battalion that will initially be used to oust Raoul Cedras, Michel-Joseph Francois and a number of other U.S.-trained military yobs who’ve been running the shambling “government” for the past few years. This is a job that would really take, at most, 200 rapid-deployment types.


The 15,000 brave young men and women are for controlling the streets after the generals have been dumped. They are for policing Aristide’s constituency and who knows for how long. Until the United Nations can get its act together and set up a U.N. occupation as agreed to in the U.N. accord. That could take a year. By then, Aristide’s term will be up. (Seven months in power, three years in exile and one year in office, while 15,000 foreign troops patrol his streets.) Then new elections will be scheduled, which the United Nations can supervise. The United States perhaps will have achieved its policy goal: Aristide’s term will have ended without his once wielding true power. (Mindful of past presidents-for-life, the 1987 Haitian constitution forbids a president from successive terms.)

Yet Aristide has given more than tacit support for this putative intervention: He provided a letter (demanded by the U.N. Security Council before they would agree to the plan) asking for action by the international community. One must assume he has been forced into this because he has come to believe that intervention is the only way he is going back to Haiti, and that his return is symbolically essential for the reinstatement of democracy.

For those who know how the United States has behaved in Haiti over the past 10 years, to say nothing of the past century, this is not enough to justify a U.S. intervention. The United States has not given one indication since the fall of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1986 that it supports anything but the most cosmetic form of democracy in Haiti.

A U.S. intervention would mean another half century of the same for Haiti: continuing domination by the economic elite; continuing penury for the Haitian peasantry (at least 50% of the population), and a complete halt to the organic internal change that is the prerequisite of any real democracy. The United States and its Haitian friends, after all, are the oppressors the Haitians were trying to throw off when they elected Aristide. A revolutionary cannot be considered successful if he is restored to power by the very order he sought to overthrow.


If the United States were acting in good faith, there are things that could still be done to bring about a peaceful solution to Haiti’s long travail. The Americans could continue to impose a further strengthened embargo--putting pressure on the Dominican Republic to close its still leaky border. Since the beginning of the crisis, the embargo is the one thing that has really bothered the Haitian elite. The harder it gets, the more they hate it, and the more it turns them away from the military men they put into power.

If the business elite unites against the military junta, the junta will go--maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Then the United States would have to stand firm--not President Bill Clinton’s forte--and keep the embargo in place until it is made clear to the elite that they will have to accept Aristide’s return. And they would accept it--in exchange for lifting the embargo. According to the Governors Island accords of a year ago, Aristide could then return, accompanied by some kind of international force that would at least respond to some of the elite’s qualms about him. Of course, their worries would also be calmed by the fact that he would have only a short time left in his term.

All this could have been done a year ago, if Washington had been serious about democracy in Haiti. Unless they are willing to wait until Aristide’s term is over before fixing things--always a possibility--the Americans seem to have boxed themselves into a corner where military intervention is the only alternative. Sadly, that’s how the U.S. foreign-policy Establishment seems to want it.