IT took a phone call from Washington in 1986 to convince Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier that it was in his best interests to flee. In 1990, it took a visit by the US ambassador to get Gen. Prosper Avril and the armed forces to relinquish their grip on power and agree to democratic elections.
In December 1990, campaigning on an anti-corruption, reformist platform, Jean-Bertrand Aristide overwhelmingly was elected president of Haiti. His democratic experiment lasted only seven months, to be overthrown 19 months ago by a brutal coup costing several thousand lives. Having successfully flexed its "muscle" in the recent past, why did Washington prove so ineffective for so long in ousting those who overthrew Mr. Aristide? Part of the answer has been its ambivalence toward a populist committed to su bstantial rather than token changes.
The civil strife that has occurred since Aristide's ouster, the worst in modern Haitian history, and in which slum dwellers paid the greatest price, is not so much for electoral democracy as to steer the island's destiny. Before his election, Aristide said that "democratic elections are not a solution" because "elections are a way for those in power to control the people." Washington, for all its professed aversion for the military golpistas, has meant to ensure that Duvalierist institutions, especially the armed forces, remain intact as a barrier against an imagined mobocracy. At first, the US was content to let a largely ineffective Organization of American States find a "solution" to the Haitian crisis. The UN's diplomatic efforts, begun a number of months ago, dragged on without significant results, aside from allowing scores of foreign human rights monitors to enter the island.
From the beginning, the most discussed formula for a solution would see Aristide return as almost a figurehead president at some unspecified future date. But this was hardly realistic, since there are enough of his opponents in Haiti's rigged Senate to impeach and dismiss him should he step out of line. Meanwhile, would the security forces quietly go back to the barracks as if nothing had happened, their leaders cheerfully giving up access to millions in illicit drug-trafficking dollars and their hatred for Aristide? Not surprisingly, Aristide privately has viewed this scenario with apprehension, as do most Haitians, convinced that fundamental social reform is impossible in the absence of the democratization of the country's basic institutions. That is why, during his brief presidency, he kept rallying support in the streets whenever his reforms were being blocked by the country's self-serving, if tiny, elite.
After the last White House meeting of the two leaders, President Clinton declared his firm support for Aristide's return to power. But no indication of a sharp break with former President Bush's failed policy materialized. In fact, the same man who authored it, Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, has been held over to do the same for Mr. Clinton. Other senior US officials spoke of Aristide's returning to Haiti "when conditions permit." But they are opposed to his insistence that Army commander Gen. Raoul Cedras and other coup leaders be brought to justice, pressing him to agree to an amnesty for both victims and the victimizers.
As of now, Clinton's equivocations seem to be ending. The current White House initiative of asking donor nations to pledge $200 million a year over five years to help renovate the country's institutions and infrastructure is a step forward, but not a big one. Meanwhile, the Haitian military continues to stonewall, as more demands are made on Aristide.
Like Mr. Bush, Clinton seems to have confused democracy in Haiti with a demand that Aristide be willing to coexist with terrorist individuals and institutions. But the consolidation of Haitian democracy depends on vindication for the victims of the military terror.
Aristide is scheduled to return in a couple of months, but not necessarily with plenary powers. Only by putting General Cedras and his senior colleagues on trial, having the armed and paramilitary forces turn in their weapons, and restoring Aristide to his full constitutional authority under an international peacekeeping force, can Haitian society be reliably freed from its unworthy military.