US Policy Toward Haiti Ducks Three Major Issues

Should Aristide run again? Should aid be tied to economic reform? Should UN troops stay on?

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PERHAPS more than for any other country in the world, US policy has consequences for Haiti. It was the United States government, one year ago, that engineered President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return after three years of exile. Washington's decisions in the coming months will critically affect the future of Haiti's fledgling democracy.

But partisan wrangling over whether Haiti represents a diplomatic triumph for President Clinton or a tragic misuse of US power has obscured the real issues. With domestic US politics - not US or Haitian interests - driving the debate, the three most crucial questions are being ignored.

The first is whether a formula should be sought to allow Mr. Aristide to seek reelection to a second term, currently barred by the Haitian Constitution. The Clinton administration so far rejects consideration of this notion, insisting that Aristide honor his pledge to step down in December when his term ends. The administration is rightly concerned about the integrity of Haiti's fragile constitutional order, but it also wants to avoid bolstering critics of its policy, who charge Aristide is an aspiring dictator ready to perpetuate himself in power.

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Yet, there are advantages to having Aristide run again. Whether he is a committed democrat or not, he remains enormously popular and would win any election hands down. Moreover, despite continuing economic distress, Aristide has succeeded in moderating the rancor and violence that have characterized Haiti's recent history. Many Haitians who bitterly opposed his return now want to keep him in office because no one else appears to have the same capacity to hold the country together.

Recent parliamentary and municipal elections, although hardly models of democratic process, demonstrated that virtually any candidate Aristide designates will win easily. Chances are Aristide will handpick his successor and effectively retain power, but conflict between him and the new president is also possible. The question is whether these options serve democracy better than a transparent initiative to change the Haitian Constitution to allow Aristide to become a candidate.

Such constitutional changes recently took place in Argentina and Peru, where incumbent presidents Carlos Saul Menem and Alberto Fujimori gained reelection this year. The US took no position in those cases, arguing that the decision belonged to the Argentine and Peruvian voters. Maybe it also belongs to the Haitian voter.

A second vital question concerns US conditions on financial assistance to Haiti. Supported by most other international donors, Washington has encouraged Haiti to pursue a market-oriented development strategy - emphasizing a balanced budget, expanded exports, market determined prices, and the privatization of state enterprises. All this makes good sense and is the best hope for economic and social advance in the hemisphere's poorest country. Yet, Aristide and many of his advisers refuse to implement elements of the market strategy.

What then to do? The Haitian government is retarding economic revival. Several state-owned and now closed factories would open for business if they were sold to private buyers. But does that mean the US should withdraw its aid to try to force the adoption of better policies? Or should the US consider Haiti a special case that requires special treatment? Is it possible and advisable to find areas - health, education, conservation, for instance - in which foreign assistance can be effectively used, while continuing to press for macroeconomic policy changes?

Finally, the most politically sensitive issue concerns UN peacekeeping forces in Haiti, including some 3,000 US soldiers.

It is easy to understand why the administration, wounded by the events in Somalia and now planning to send troops to Bosnia, would not want to open a debate over whether to keep an international force in Haiti beyond the currently scheduled departure date of March 1. But, keeping UN troops in Haiti for a while longer may be a proper precaution against the possibility of a new cycle of violence, whether political or criminal. It should be considered in both the US and the UN.

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