Do We Really Want to Send Troops to Haiti?

The last `temporary' assignment for Americans in Port-au-Prince turned into a 19-year stay

IF you like the United States-United Nations policy in Somalia and Bosnia, you'll love it in Haiti.

At a time when Washington is trying to formulate criteria for participation in multilateral military interventions, the UN Security Council, with US support, has voted unanimously to send a force to Haiti.

French, Canadians, and Algerians will train the Haitian police and provide a presence that, if all goes well, will discourage police mistreatment of the local population. Five hundred US military personnel will train the Haitian Army in roadbuilding, civic action, and other activities designed to steer them away from staging coups dtat, repressing dissent, and generally brutalizing civilians. Or so it is hoped. The council projects that this will take six months.

All of this is directed to implementing an agreement for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to Haiti; he is expected to do so by the end of October.

That will be a little more than two years since he was sent into exile after serving less than a year of the term to which he was elected in 1990. But last month a bunch of thugs disguised as plainclothes policemen would not even let the elected mayor of Port-au-Prince reclaim city hall. And the UN troops will not be authorized to use force.

We've been through all this before. In 1915, President Wilson was worried that Germany might acquire a naval base in Haiti (sound familiar?), and he sent the marines and the Navy to keep watch offshore. The marines landed when a civil conflict degenerated into barbarism. There was a mass murder of 167 political prisoners. The then-president (who probably ordered the executions) took refuge in the French embassy, where a mob found him hiding under a bed and murdered him.

The marines stayed for 19 years. They gave Port-au-Prince Latin America's first dial telephone system, which was still in place, though dysfunctional, in the 1960s. But they did nothing to encourage the development of political institutions.

The marines did organize the Gardi d'Haiti. This time, under UN auspices, the US is going back to train the guard again.

Civic action for the Latin American military is an idea that came to the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Kennedy administration. It was inspired by the popularity of the Army Corps of Engineers in the US. The hope was to improve the public image of military forces in Latin America generally and at the same time to nudge them into doing something useful instead of predatory. It did not work and was shortly abandoned.

The US persisted in civic action in Vietnam; it did not work there either. There is no reason to think it will work any better in the 1990s than in the '60s.

Haiti does not need an army; it faces no foreign threat. If the UN wants to do something constructive, disarm the troops and send them home. (The original mistake the US made in Somalia was in not disarming the population.)

Haiti does need a police force, and there's the rub. The Haitian police are not, and have not been, there to enforce the law and keep order. They are there to collect graft and to terrorize the population, and they arrogantly dare anybody (including, it can be confidently predicted, the United Nations) to do anything about it.

From New Year's Day 1804, when Haiti became the first country in Latin America to gain independence, until now, Haiti has never had a decent government. The voting that propelled Aristide to the presidency was probably the first free and honest election in the country's history.

That is progress of a sort, but it is not much to show for 190 years.

It will be argued that we cannot turn our backs on Haiti. One reason is humanitarian. But this program has no element of humanitarian relief.

Another reason is that if life is not made more tolerable in Haiti, large numbers of Haitians will seek to come to the US. That raises the larger issue of immigration, which involves all the third world and more. (Already Somalis are driving taxicabs in Washington.) Immigration is a serious issue, but it should be addressed generically and not ad hoc. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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