What's needed to bring change in Haiti

HAITI's misery splashes across our newspapers. In the 2 years since the dictatorial rule of the Duvalier family was ended by vigorous popular protest and deft United States pressure, coups, canceled and fake elections, and executive-initiated terror has prevented the establishment of any active form of participatory democracy. Gen. Prosper Avril, who ousted Gen. Henri Namphy in September, leads a mixed military-civilian government with strong ties to ousted Duvalierists. His talks with opposition politicians could lead, however, to another attempt at an honest national election. The US must find effective ways to prod him in that direction.

Admittedly, Haiti is hardly ripe for democracy. Nothing in its history, geopolitics, or demography boosts confidence in the creation of a bold, new Haiti without internal conflict between haves and other haves and between all the haves and the have-nots.

Haiti is incredibly overpopulated. About 2,000 people attempt to till each arable square mile. Haiti is small - 10,700 square miles, no larger than Maryland. As its forests have been stripped for charcoal, consequent brutal erosion has destroyed agricultural land and led to the steady desertification of a country that was among the richest sources of colonial profit in the 18th century. Per capita GNP is about $300, the lowest in the hemisphere.

After failed elections, coups, and little attention to economic growth by the regime of Gen. Henri Namphy, Haiti is rapidly running out of cash. The United States may gain leverage not by resuming its aid (cut off in 1987), but by promising to sell petroleum products at concessionary prices and by guaranteeing a higher-than-world price for Haitian coffee. It should do so, however, only after Haiti agrees to hold free elections and a new government is established without military interference.

Only Haitians who have lived in North America (where about 2 million now reside) or Europe have experience with democracy, elections, sharing power, a free press, and a tolerant military. Most Haitians have experienced only governments that prey on the people, live off corruption and extortion, and concern themselves little with affairs beyond Port-au-Prince, the capital, and a few towns. Several of General Namphy's colleagues were thought to be involved in smuggling for profit, and in drug running.

In exchange for any fresh economic assistance and political support, the US should attempt the ``impossible'' - curbing the use of Haiti by Colombian and other drug cartels as a transshipment point.

Haitians are gentle, clever, industrious people, accustomed to making the most of very little. Yet they have always lacked decent leaders. After the bitter Haitian revolution of 1790-1804, when valiant ex-slaves fought Napoleon's regiments and won, there was a gradual national descent into virtual purgatory.

Haiti came to self-government absent any heritage of representative democracy or any experience of consensus. It was unable to reestablish the intensive agriculture of the country because indigo, cotton, and sugar required large-scale capital investment. Under President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1820-43), Haiti irrevocably became a land of largely illiterate, black, Creole-speaking smallholders divorced from the mulatto-dominated towns. The needs of the state were never communicated, and no funds existed to extend its apparatus to those outside the elite cliques that dominated it. The presidency was equated with a license to plunder, and nearly all the elite's energies were devoted to the retention of that license. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, only the Army maintained a semblance of institutional coherence.

Because of their isolation, endemic corruption, and inefficiency, Haitian governments after Boyer became more and more unstable and short-lived. From 1843 to 1915 there were 22 presidents, most of whom came to power by force of arms and coup d''etat.

The US intervened in July 1915. It pacified, administered, and introduced new methods of solving old problems. Decent roads were built and proper telephone and telegraphic services introduced. Hospitals and schools were refurbished. Americans tried to upgrade living standards and attempted to impose their own cultural ideas on Haitian society.

Yet by the time the US occupation ended in 1934, the base of political participation had not been broadened. The ruling cliques still operated.

The fall of President Paul Magloire in late 1956 ended the century-long manipulation of Haitian politics by shifting arrangements of interlocking cliques. For eight months, while Haiti looked for a new political direction, turmoil and chaos racked the republic. From this bloody cataclysm emerged Fran,cois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his family machine.

Mr. Duvalier, a public health physician, had studied at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. To the US Embassy, he appeared to represent an authentic break with mulatto domination.

Duvalier, however, was motivated by a lust for power that would be satisfied only when everything in Haiti moved at his will. Potential dissidents were removed and opposition of any kind stilled. Duvalier's dictatorship was marked by unbridled bullying of defenseless Haitians. Torture and brutality reached astounding levels.

Is there hope for Haiti? Based on the past, very little. But if Haitians can shake off the zero-sum mentality that has guided their rulers for more than a century, and if the US can use its influence with surgical precision in the ways suggested, and if the new generation of national leaders is wiser and more far-seeing than their predecessors, then, yes, perhaps a new Haiti can arise from the bitter ashes of the Duvaliers and their military heirs.

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