Haiti at brink again - US owes help

Ten years ago, I risked my life by embarking on a hunger strike. It was a desperate attempt to change America's Haiti policy. In the 28th day of my fast, President Clinton announced that the US would pursue a more just Haiti policy. Shortly thereafter, a US-led multinational force reinstalled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted in a military coup. Haiti's first democratically elected president, Mr. Aristide had won in a landslide, and I was proud to stand with the Haitian people - and him.

Today, Aristide - who stepped down at the end of his first term and was reelected to the presidency in 2000 - is under attack again. Political unrest is rocking the poverty-stricken nation - including protests both for and against the president. And a summit of Caribbean Community representatives has begun a series of meetings to resolve the crisis. This week they are meeting with Aristide opponents who accuse him of trampling on civil rights and are demanding he step down.

Again, I stand with this leader and his right to complete his five-year term. And again, I urge the US - the world's most powerful democracy - to resolutely embrace Haiti's democratically elected president.

How has Aristide - who was so loved and revered - ended up the focus of calls for his ouster?

Aristide may have failings in his ability to negotiate the vicious power divide between Haiti's economic elite and its broader masses, but US policy has created an environment in which it is impossible for him to succeed.

As in Iraq, the US has in Haiti pursued policies and formed allegiances that violate the sanctity and inviolability of the ballot box, while attempting to deliver the future of an entire nation and people into the hands of a specially selected, unelected few.

US financial, political, and military support for Haiti remained strong while the Duvalier family dictators and their successors were in power. However, the US attitude soured with the election of Aristide, who'd been an enormously popular Roman Catholic priest working among the poor and against the brutality of Haiti's dictators.

Aristide's criticism of US support for Haiti's dictators won him the eternal distrust and ire of certain US policymakers. And as president, his adherence to principles - when wealthy Haitians and the US expected greater "flexibility" - only deepened his foes' opposition to him.

Haiti's US-trained Army overthrew Aristide in 1991. Public pressure pushed the US to lead a multinational effort to restore Aristide's government in exile in 1994. But when Republicans, who'd vehemently opposed the restoration, won control of Congress, they moved to isolate Aristide.

They successfully pushed legislation to finance the training of those who opposed Aristide's grass-roots Lavalas movement and to withdraw US assistance to the Haitian government. And later, the Bush administration forced the Inter-American Development Bank to deny Haiti hundreds of millions of dollars in already approved loans for safe drinking water, literacy programs, and health services. They began giving aid - that normally would go to the Haitian government - to nongovernmental organizations, some of which were run by wealthy anti-Aristide Haitians.

Most troubling, though, has been US encouragement of Haiti's opposition in its refusal to participate in elections that the government continues to call for, but which the opposition knows it will lose.

The US has actually taken the position that there can be no legitimate elections in Haiti if the opposition doesn't participate, and that if elections do go forward without the opposition, the US won't accept the results. This reflects terribly on what America stands for as a nation, particularly in these times.

It is because of the opposition's rejection of elections that Aristide has "failed to hold elections"; new parliamentarians have not been elected, leaving vacancies in the parliament; and with a nonfunctioning parliament Aristide is "ruling by decree." The suggestiong being that he has "usurped the powers of government for his own dictatorial purposes."

So, yes, there are now those who demonstrate because the government has been unable to "make life better." But the broad masses of Haitians want no coups. They want democracy to work, stability for their families, and the president to complete his term.

The US must live up to the standards required of the world's most powerful democracy and support the Haitian government call for elections - whether or not some elements of the opposition participate. The US and Haitian Constitutions provide for the stability of the state with specified terms of each president. The Constitution must be the final authority in the US, in Haiti, and in all democracies, or anarchy will prevail.

The opposition in Haiti calls for the overthrow of the democratically elected government. The US must unequivocally condemn and distance itself from these proponents of insurrection and refuse to recognize a government that seizes power.

The US must take these steps if it genuinely wants to support democracy and promote stability in Haiti. Not to do this is bad for America. The rest of the world must see the US as more than the embodiment of economic and military might, but as the embodiment of such inviolable principles as justice, equity, and consistency. These intangibles, are, in fact, key to the real and lasting security that all Americans crave.

• Randall Robinson is founder and former president of TransAfrica, a foreign policy organization. Now a writer, he lives in the Caribbean.

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