Worsening Scenes in Haiti Will Test U.S. Tolerance for Chaos

Times Staff Writer

The crisis in Haiti confronts the Bush administration with a problem well known to its predecessors for decades: how to undertake swift triage in the hemisphere’s poorest country without being responsible for a convalescence that will be long, costly and uncertain.

Repeatedly over the last century, the United States has stepped in to avert calamity in the onetime French slave colony, only to back away after the crisis had abated. But these fitful efforts, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s dispatch of Marines in 1915 to quell disorder, have never solved the problem -- indeed, according to some analysts, they made them worse.

Now U.S. officials are trying to bolster the rickety Haitian government by brokering a power-sharing deal between a president they distrust and an opposition many experts consider incapable of running the country. Adding urgency to the mission, bands of rebels not known to be under the control of the opposition are threatening to overrun the capital.

The administration continued Tuesday to push for the power-sharing plan, although an opposition spokesman said it had been rejected. Yet even as they become more deeply involved in diplomacy, U.S. officials are trying to limit the American commitment. They have ruled out military intervention and are not promising a bonanza of financial aid.


But if the compromise fails and insurgents seize Port-au-Prince, precipitating a humanitarian disaster, U.S. officials may find it harder to stand by. Should a wave of Haitians set out to Florida in boats, there could be political consequences for the president in an election year.

The Americans “will want to do the absolute minimum necessary to keep the situation from exploding,” said Daniel P. Erikson, a director of the Caribbean program at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “The open question is: What’s the U.S. tolerance for chaos in Haiti?”

President Bush said when he took office that he was skeptical of commitments to “nation building” of the kind that would be required in Haiti, a country that, by many measures, is as bad off as some of the poorest in Africa. Despite the White House’s departure from that policy in Iraq, Bush aides have cited Haiti’s long downward slide in the 1990s as proof of how massive a project it would be.

In 1994, the United States sent 20,000 troops to help restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after his ouster in a military coup, and the force occupied the country for two years. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was part of the team that arranged the restoration.

A United Nations contingent stayed four more years to foster a return to democracy.

But in the elections of 2000, Aristide was blamed for widespread fraud. As his tenure lengthened, he was accused of funding violent pro-government militias, suppressing opposition and ruling by decree.

After 2000, the U.S. and international donors cut back aid. Conservative Republicans in Congress argued that the 1994 intervention had been a massive waste of resources that should not be repeated. U.S. officials criticized the country’s weak judicial, law enforcement and educational systems, and its dysfunctional government.

A State Department official recalled recently that the Haitian bureaucracy was unable to arrange to refuel new cars and trucks shipped there by international donors. Government workers drove them until they were out of gas, then abandoned them, the official said.

American officials say there is little public support for a prolonged U.S. stewardship of Haiti. In the mid-1990s, President Clinton was hailed by supporters for trying to aid an impoverished country that had been ignored, at least in part, they felt, because of racism. But even Clinton was unwilling to maintain the U.S. commitment for more than two years, analysts have noted.

The Clinton administration cut aid to Haiti in 2000, during its last days in office. The Bush administration continued to restrict aid even as the country’s deterioration accelerated.

“The Bush administration’s policy was pretty much identical to Clinton’s at the beginning, but it has been more damaging because the situation has gotten worse and worse,” Erikson said.

James Dobbins, Clinton’s special envoy to Haiti from 1994 to 1996, said he blamed Aristide, above all, for squandering the opportunities of recent years to move Haiti toward political and economic reform.

Yet Dobbins also believes that successive U.S. administrations must share blame for a contradictory, start-and-stop approach. He says they have spent too little on a problem that, because of Haiti’s poverty and its proximity to the U.S., should have a far higher priority.

Despite the $55 million in aid requested by the administration for Haiti for fiscal 2005, the country will receive only about one one-hundredth of the aid Iraq is receiving, Dobbins said -- even though Iraq’s per-capita income is much larger than Haiti’s. Haiti received about $200 million a year at the 1990s peak, he said.

Despite the reluctance to intervene, the threat of large-scale emigration has made it impossible to ignore Haiti.

In recent days, both of Florida’s Democratic senators, and also some of its Republican House members, such as Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, have expressed concern about the possibility of a new wave of emigration.

About 100,000 Haitians have been picked up at sea over the last two decades, including 67,000 between 1991 and 1994. In a recent statement on Haiti, the State Department noted that deterring the country’s people from illegally immigrating to the U.S. “is a top foreign policy objective,” a matter of national security “as well as a danger to Haitians who attempt” the 700-mile journey.

The U.S. approach to the country “has vacillated between aggressive engagement that eventually falls prey to disappointing results, and partial withdrawal, which allows the country’s woes to multiply until heightened involvement again becomes necessary,” Erikson wrote in a recent article. He said this cycle has been worsened by political divisions among Americans on the issue.

But it is also driven by the fact that U.S. policy tools have “only limited power to address the country’s most fundamental needs,” he said.

The United States must commit itself to spending several hundred million dollars a year to gradually build Haitian institutions, said Dobbins, who now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.

“We need a long-term, generational engagement,” he said.