Democracy Takes a Back Seat in Haiti

Beleaguered Haitians must be relieved that the international community has moved to quell the violence and expand humanitarian aid to the country. But Haitian advocates of democracy must also feel thwarted. The events of the last several weeks make clear that violence can prevail over the democratic process. They also show that the United States is willing to subvert its commitment to democracy to sideline an unpalatable leader.

Having sent mixed messages since the beginning of the February rebellion about whether it would stand behind Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United States ultimately put pressure on him to resign, as the armed rebels encircled Port-au-Prince and it became apparent that the opposition would accept nothing less than the president’s departure. On the surface, Aristide’s resignation appeared to be a winning solution for the Bush administration. Not only did the rebel violence subside, but Aristide – whom the United States had been seeking to supplant for years through its support of the opposition – was removed from power in a process that did not technically abrogate the constitution. As a result, the administration was able to avoid the potentially embarrassing situation of being forced, under the anti-coup provisions of the OAS charter, to help restore Aristide to power. However, it is woefully unclear that this was the best solution for Haiti.

First, the political crisis is far from resolved. After news of his resignation was released, Aristide’s supporters took to the streets in protest, and they are now left feeling disenfranchised and angry. Meanwhile, questions remain about how a new government will be formed and which elements of the opposition will be allowed at the table. Adding fuel to the fire are the shadows of uncertainty surrounding how Aristide left the country; questions about whether he jumped or was pushed; and ambiguities about his future role. These doubts will cast a specter of illegitimacy on the already difficult process of stabilizing Haiti and re-establishing the rule of law and democracy.

Second, while U.S. actions may have prevented the rebels from staging a coup against Aristide, this was only because the U.S. in essence engineered a change of government before the rebels had a chance to carry out a coup. In other words, the United States and its allies did the rebels’ bidding for them. Now there is no clear plan for how to deal with the rebels, who remain an armed presence around the country. It is safe to assume that at some point these groups will demand a part in the transition government as a condition of their disarmament – if disarmament can even be achieved peacefully. In fact, the wires are reporting that rebel leader Guy Philippe is seeking to reconstitute the army, and has already declared himself Haiti’s new military chief. If Philippe’s declaration is left to stand, the rebels will be allowed to reap political reward for their marauding.

Finally, the United States sent the wrong message to Haitians – who have survived more than 30 coups since independence – that democracy takes a back seat when its leaders are not to America’s liking. While Aristide may have led a corrupt and violent government, he was the internationally recognized and elected leader of Haiti, and should have been treated by all sides as such. Instead, the United States allowed the opposition, despite its refusal to participate in the political process for the last several years, a veto in the negotiations. U.S. actions in Haiti send a signal to opposition forces around the world that violence, extremism, and terror are legitimate means of political change, and that the United States values expediency over democracy.

Mirna Galic and Nicole Mlade are national security analysts at the Center for American Progress.

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