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Haiti lies only 650 miles southeast of Miami, yet the latest images on the nightly news are closer to war-torn countries than the bucolic photos of neighboring tourist destinations. Heightening tensions between supporters of populist leader President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected to his first term in the country’s long-awaited democratic elections in 1990, and the diverse opposition forces have brought Haiti to the brink of civil war.

Haiti is not a stranger to all-or-nothing political struggles and violent power transfers. The country has experienced more than 30 coups since gaining independence in 1804. President Aristide himself was forcibly removed from office in 1991, only to be reinstated through U.S. military action in 1994. During his absence, Haiti was ruled by a brutal military regime, prompting the president to disband the military and, with international help, to start a new police force upon his return to power.

Yet the once-popular president made a strategic error in May 2000 when election authorities loyal to the government refused to change a controversial method that determined the outcome of eight senate seats in the parliamentary elections.

Resolving Haiti’s crisis will depend upon a strong commitment by Haitians to peace and compromise. It will also depend upon the support of the United States, which should:

  • help finance a U.N. peacekeeping operation led by Canada and France;
  • extract clear and measurable agreements from the Haitian government to provide security for political opponents;
  • support the strengthening of the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Mission to Haiti to monitor the agreement;
  • join other donors in supporting parliamentary and eventually presidential elections, including an election monitoring effort; and
  • provide targeted and monitored international aid to put Haiti on the road to recovery following free and fair elections.

Most importantly, the United States and the international community need to make a long-term commitment to Haiti to ensure stability, and much-needed development and democracy in the poorest country in the hemisphere.

For once the news from Haiti is not exaggerated. Armed gangs in the port city of Gonaives, which six months ago professed undying loyalty to the president, now control the city as a rebel force. The gangs changed their tune after the September 2003 assassination of their leader, Amiot "Cuban" Metayer, for which they blame the Aristide government. Metayer had become a thorn in the government’s side after the OAS implicated him in attacks against local political opposition members in 2001. Under the leadership of Metayer’s brother, Butter, and using heavy weapons they say were given to them by the government in happier times, the rebels repulsed the government’s latest attempt to retake the city in early February. The government has also lost control of the northern town of Trou du Nord to armed civilians and is battling for control of St. Marc=

Further complicating matters is the mid-February arrival in Gonaives of former Haitian Police chief Guy Philippe, whom the government blames for a string of murderous attacks on government officials and state property in central Haiti over the last several years. Philippe was accompanied by Louis-Jodel Chamblain, former second-in-command of the paramilitary group, Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which cooperated with the military regime that deposed Aristide. These retrograde forces have made common cause with the Gonaives rebels (whom they terrorized 10 years ago) and recently attacked the police station in the central town of Hinche.

The capital, Port-au-Prince, although not immediately threatened by rebels, has been rocked since early December by anti-government protests led by students and business leaders demanding Aristide’s resignation. In the capital and elsewhere, the government relies on its own armed street gangs to protect its interests when the dysfunctional police force is unwilling or unable to do the job. Aristide remains adamant that he will serve out the three remaining years of his five-year term.

As usual there is more than enough blame in Haiti to go around. From the time President Aristide began his second term in early 2001, he has presided over an administration marked by incompetence, intimidation and corruption. Barely two months into his term, Aristide’s prime minister bought a $2 million mansion with state funds in a country where the average annual income is less than $1 a day. Top Aristide aides, including high-ranking police officers, are suspected of drug trafficking and have been denied U.S. visas.

Furthermore, Aristide long ago ceded control of important state functions to his most ardent supporters, creating local mafia-like operations of which Metayer’s gang is only the most public example. These groups have operated with impunity and alienated the local population with intimidation and violence. Not surprisingly, Aristide’s once overwhelming popularity has plummeted, although he retains the support of a core of urban poor.

The political opposition has been inept at exploiting the opportunities offered by a dysfunctional government. The scores of opposition parties, ranging from weak to nonexistent, have refused to do the hard work necessary to develop a credible political alternative, preferring to talk endlessly on the radio while hoping for foreign intervention. Furthermore, the opposition is a diverse coalition comprised of the business community, university students and political parties, which last week could not agree on the route of an opposition march.

Given Haiti’s history, it is not surprising that both sides seek to blame the international community, specifically the United States, for their own shortcomings. The government faults the United States for withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank, based on the controversy around the May 2000 parliamentary elections. The opposition in turn claims that by not actively pursuing regime change in Haiti, the United States is propping up a corrupt and violent government. Indeed, the rhetoric in Haiti has become so extreme and the situation so polarized that both the government and its opponents refer to each other as terrorists.

In Haiti the blame game can easily take us back hundreds of years to the colonial period. While the past is important, those interested in the welfare of our Haitian neighbors need to look to the future to relieve the terrible daily suffering of most Haitians.

Aristide has requested international assistance to retake those towns that the government no longer controls, but the United States is reluctant to step in before order has been restored and a political agreement is in place between the opposition and the government. The Bush administration’s reluctance stems in part from an unwillingness to incur more foreign policy risks in an election year. While opposition leaders remain adamant that they will only negotiate Aristide’s exile, their inability to agree on anything else offers little hope that they would be able to negotiate a common position beyond Aristide’s departure. At the same time, under the status quo, the country will undoubtedly become more chaotic and poor, eventually increasing the flow of Haitian refugees to Florida, something the Bush brothers would like to avoid. Waiting will only prolong the agony for all sides.

To restore order quickly and establish the minimum of stability necessary to address the political crisis, the United States should help finance a U.N. mission of international peacekeepers led by Canada and France. (France has offered to send peacekeepers under the UN umbrella, and Canada, with a long record of assistance to Haiti, is perceived as more neutral and less imperialistic than the United States.) This approach would avoid the pitfalls of a third unilateral U.S. military intervention in Haiti in 100 years, and would have the additional benefit of repairing the lingering rifts over Iraq and reinforcing the United States’ commitment to the United Nations.

However, before committing peacekeepers, international donors should extract clear and written agreements from the Haitian government to respect basic civil liberties and provide a minimum of state security, especially for its political opponents. To monitor this commitment, the OAS Special Mission to Haiti should be beefed up, again with U.S. financing, and with an emphasis on human rights observers. Sanctions for non-compliance should be severe.

Once a minimum of security has been established, donors can discuss a timetable and financing for elections to reconstitute the parliament (whose term ended in January) and eventual presidential elections in November 2005. Without a parliament the government cannot ratify agreements with the international financial institutions, Haiti’s only realistic short-term source of major funding. A freely-elected parliament can also serve as a much needed check on executive power and provide effective channels for citizen participation in public affairs.

Government opponents and possible candidates on both sides have well-founded fears of political persecution that need to be addressed. Here again the OAS could play a useful monitoring role. International observers should cover the country for the entire electoral period and publish their findings regularly. In a country where mistrust is common currency, all parties need to be assured that their efforts at subterfuge will be exposed and that they will receive a fair shake.

The United States should push the opposition to participate in elections if the government takes a series of well-defined steps to guarantee that the elections are free and fair. The departure of President Aristide, which the opposition demands as a precondition to any negotiations, will solve very few of Haiti’s problems and certainly create a few more. Haiti’s difficulties are structural, not personal, and Aristide, though different in the fact that he was fairly elected, is simply one in a long line of disappointing leaders that Haitian politics has produced.

In fact, the opposition’s refusal to accept anything less than Aristide’s departure could likely lead to a repeat of the Venezuelan crisis where anti-government strikes, led by business leaders and the middle class, brought that country to a halt but failed to muster the critical mass to overthrow President Hugo Chavez. Two years later, with the economy in shambles, Venezuelans are now taking the constitutional path by organizing a referendum on Chavez’s rule. In Haiti, with no side clearly stronger than the other, it is better to avoid a war of attrition and accept the provisions for peaceful power transfer laid out in the Haitian constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved in a 1987 referendum. Anything less will open the door for opportunists of all stripes to try to implement their agenda.

Whatever the outcome, if elections are deemed free and fair, Haiti should be rewarded with a substantial package of targeted and monitored international aid and loans. History has shown that most international aid, in Haiti and elsewhere, results in a downward spiral of debt for future generations. Thus job number one should be reforming the Haitian tax system, as the long term survival of any state rests on its ability to be self-financing. Concurrently, immediate infusions for infrastructure projects and education reform are essential; economic development in the 21st century is impossible with an illiterate and isolated population.

Finally, all parties must be clear that supporting Haiti is not a short-term project. After the 1994 intervention, the United States and other international actors tried to pass off murderous gangs as legitimate political players; offered U.S. residency to known human rights violators (who only now are being extradited to Haiti to stand trial); and skipped out before the hard work of nation-building was done. Most notably, the United States left behind a young, poorly-trained, and ill-equipped police force, and a government devoid of competent bureaucrats. Success now depends on not repeating these mistakes.

Haiti is not a hopeless case; its people are resilient and resourceful. But they need help. Providing international peacekeepers, election observers, financing for elections, tightly controlled international aid, and continuing engagement takes strong commitment, good management, and lots of money and time. The United States, acting in concert with Canada and France, has every interest in providing these elements to stem the growing humanitarian crisis and help Haiti on the road to recovery.

Two hundred years ago Haitian slaves gave the world a shining example of liberty and equality when they defeated Napoleon’s army and created an independent republic with the world’s first colorblind constitution. Today we can repay them by offering our own commitment to international cooperation and economic liberty. The cost of doing anything less will be severe.

Edward Keane has worked and traveled extensively in Haiti, and has written on Haitian politics, culture and the environment.

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