Haiti's Democratic Dreams

WHATEVER the outcome of the Haiti crisis, we have witnessed a sorry chapter in United States foreign policy in which an exaggerated concern for ``democracy'' has overwhelmed other interests in Haiti, above all the well-being of millions of desperately poor Haitians. This episode shows the costs when one of the many interests that drive US foreign policy is blown out of proportion.

I put ``democracy'' in quotes for several reasons:

Since its independence in 1804, Haiti has not practiced the civic values that make democratic institutions work. This is not a case a of ``restoring democracy,'' because Haiti's sole claim to democracy is that its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected in 1990 by a substantial majority of voters.

While that election must be respected, Mr. Aristide's credentials as a democrat are meager. He rode to power with essentially the same ideology as Fidel Castro Ruz and the Sandinistas, including the same contempt for liberal Western political and economic institutions.

During his eight months in office in 1991, Aristide displayed little respect for democratic norms. As a result, the large majority of political parties, not just on the right but in the center and on the left, supported the coup as did most labor organizations.

While human rights abuses have clearly intensified since the coup, Aristide's human rights record as president was far from exemplary. He bears considerable responsibility for the numerous lynchings that occurred during his administration. Americas Watch noted, ``By our count, there were at least 25 cases [of burning tire ``necklacing''].... The major problem is not that Aristide did nothing to stop these incidents, despite his tremendous moral prestige. But in the last couple of months of his presidency, he actually gave two speeches encouraging [the necklacing of opponents].''

Against this backdrop of dubious democracy, the Organization of American States (OAS) and subsequently the United Nations should not have imposed the punishing embargo, now in its third year, but should have relied on diplomacy. The embargo punishment - which has decimated a country where most inhabitants were already living at the margin of survival - does not fit the crime. The embargo is all the more questionable because some Latin American leaders who pushed it, former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez foremost among them, may have been more interested in sending a message to their own military than in promoting democracy in Haiti. Before his recent impeachment, Mr. Perez was almost ousted twice by the military.

The costs of the embargo have been appalling. Thousands of Haitians have died because the embargo exacerbated Haiti's chronic malnutrition and disease problems through food and medicine shortages, higher food and medicine prices, higher transportation costs, and unemployment. We will never know exactly how many died, but the number is surely much higher than the number of victims of military and police violence.

Tens of thousands of jobs have been wiped out in the two sectors that represent Haiti's only economic hope: employment-intensive industry and tourism.

The US has attempted to cushion the impact by feeding hundreds of thousands of Haitians. This has doubtlessly saved lives, but at what cost in terms of Haitians self-respect and self-reliance?

The US opened itself wide to allegations of a double standard in foreign policy. US treatment of Alberto Fujimori's coup in Peru was more indulgent than its response to the Haiti coup, presumably because of Peru's key role in narcotics traffic. Would the US have invoked an embargo if the military had succeeded in ousting Perez in Venezuela, the second most important source of US oil imports? And how can the US explain its Haiti policy in light of its embrace of Mexico, where military and police violations in the few days of the recent Chiapas uprising may have cost more lives than two-plus years of military and police violence in Haiti?

The depredations of the embargo have increased the motivation of Haitians to risk their lives in leaky boats. The embargo has also strengthened the political rationale for emigration. With Mr. Castro an anachronism, how can the US continue a policy that welcomes Cubans with open arms while it repels Haitians who are embargo victims, particularly since many of the Cubans are now fleeing poverty too?

The US may yet succeed in cobbling a ``solution'' short of a military intervention or a jettisoning of Aristide. But that solution is unlikely to lead to the dismantling of Haiti's security establishment, an indispensable precondition of real change. The departure of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and Lt. Col. Michel Francois would give no assurance that Haiti's profoundly corrupted security institutions would behave differently in the future or that Aristide's security can be guaranteed if he returns. The US Marines' occupation of Haiti early in this century demonstrates that creating a professional security force there is much easier said than done. But starting fresh at least offers a chance.

American responsibility for an embargo that has inflicted so much suffering on Haiti should have led the US to support a Cambodia-style UN intervention when it became clear a few months ago that the Governors Island Accords were dead, and after the subsequent assassination of Aristide supporter Antoine Izmery and the highly respected Minister of Justice Guy Malary. But after the loss of American lives in Somalia, the US apparently cannot stomach such an intervention, even though its role need not be dominant. (The Caribbean community countries would be one likely source of manpower.)

Some experts believe that Haiti's security forces would dissolve at the sight of UN force. But even if some casualties had to be taken, the chance for a new start on building democratic institutions, with at least symbolic participation by Aristide, would be worth it. The American low-risk approach may produce the appearance of a solution, but it is unlikely to be lasting. The ill-advised embargo leaves the US with a moral obligation to support an intervention.

We can only hope that the sorry consequences of a Haiti policy based on an excessive weighting of our interest in the promotion of democracy will be pondered by the Clinton administration as it shapes its policies toward other nations. 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 by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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