On the Brink

Haiti sinks deeper into chaos, with no solution in sight.

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“We have had 32 coups in our history … the result is what we have now: moving from misery to poverty,” said Haiti’s beleaguered president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Tuesday, as an escalating rebellion threatened to end his presidency. Clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Aristide have brought the country to the brink of political and humanitarian catastrophe. The U.S. is reluctant to step in.

The story of how Aristide went from being a symbol of popular hope and freedom to a colossal disappointment is well known. His reelection in 2000, in presidential elections marred by low turnout and widely condemned as fraudulent, was something of a watershed. In punishment, the U.S. cut off aid to Haiti—some $500 million per year. The financial loss has been devastating.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas. About 80 percent of its 7.5 million people lives in abject poverty and around a third of them are chronically malnourished.

Robert Maguire
, Director of International Affairs & Haiti Programs at Trinity College in Washington DC told the Christian Science Monitor that the government has been unable to invest in “social welfare programs, infrastructure development and any other investments in the hemisphere’s poorest country. This has obviously eroded support of the government since people expected it to deliver and it has been unable to accomplish virtually anything.”

So far, more than 50 people have died in the uprising; the violence has been instigated primarily by insurgent rebels. Aristide’s political opposition, the Democratic platform hopes to maintain a peaceful opposition and hopes to distance itself from the armed rebels. Rebels, calling for Aristide’s resignation, have already taken the Haitian town of Gonaïves, the town where Haiti’s independence movement began.
They took the central town of Hinche on Monday.

According to
15 UK and international non-governmental organisations
, including ActionAid and Oxfam—Haiti is facing a humanitarian crisis. The U.N.’s World Food Programme has warned that the violence is disrupting its efforts to get food to the poorest rural areas. If deliveries did not resume within days, up to 268,000 people could be left hungry, including 90,000 schoolchildren, officials said.

Given current opposition in the U.S. concerning “nation building” in Iraq, the U.S. is reluctant to step in. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there is “no enthusiasm” for sending any American military or police forces to stop the violence, but will work with France and Latin American groups to find a solution. Powell says a democratically elected president shouldn’t be forced out of office by “thugs and those who do not respect the law.”

Yet some argue that U.S. aid is the only way to prevent further bloodshed in the country. Amy Wilentz, author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” writes in The Nation:

“[N]ow – as [Aristide] finally begins to recognize how powerful the opposition has become despite all his political jockeying and playacting – should be the time for all friends of Haiti, especially in the U.S. government, to support Aristide’s continuation at the helm: not because he is good but because he is president. Aristide is a transitional figure and not the best of these. He is no Mandela, and he does not have the political maturity to control the violent forces that swirl through Haitian politics – no easy job. Yet the future of Haiti hinges on support for institutions and for a state based on law.”

The Economist points out that the U.S. should consider sending help if only to head off a likely influx of Haitian refugees:

“Though America is not keen to launch another military intervention, it is worried about the possibility of a refugee crisis, with tens of thousands of Haitians (or their corpses) washing up on the coast of Florida or at the American military base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. In the crisis that culminated in 1994’s American-led invasion, more than 30,000 Haitian refugees were held at Guantánamo Bay and many thousands more reached Florida.”

Could there be some sort of peaceful resolution? Robert Maguire considers the possibility but concedes that Haiti is caught in a cycle of violence:

“The interesting question is how the nonviolent opposition will respond to the increasing violence and chaos being done in their name. I haven’t seen much of a response yet. There is a tendency in Haitian politics to step back and let violence spin out if you perceive it will help you meet your goals. That’s why it’s going to be very important to see what the opposition does – whether violence could push them to try to mediate a solution with Aristide.”

Aristide himself, rightly or wrongly, seems to think that a nonviolent solution is possible. In an interview on February 16:

“We have had 32 coups in our history, although we were the first black republic in the world, which is something of which we are proud. . . . The result is what we have now: moving from misery to poverty. We need not to continue moving from one coup d’état to another coup d’état, but from one elected president to another elected president. . . .
The Haitian people want to live with dignity. We don’t sell our dignity. Dignity is linked to freedom. We don’t sell our freedom. . . . If last Saturday, despite the economic situation, one million marched in a peaceful way, it is because they see we are not lying. . . . They are ready for elections because election means a nonviolent way to bring a state of law.”

What will happen to Aristide? He argues that his term lasts until February of 2006, and that’s how long he’ll be in office. Others say that’s wishful thinking. And maybe wishful thinking, too, to expect that his departure will be cause for celebration. Wilentz again:

“Still, a fatal combination of arrogance and naïveté on his part made Aristide’s difficult position much more intractable. By now, with the country well on its way to chaos, many argue that Aristide has exhausted the electorate’s patience and must be replaced.”

“It may be too late for Aristide. Rarely has a leader failed so grossly to rise to a historic occasion. When he returned to power, he bravely disbanded the Haitian Army and then promptly permitted a kind of mass civilian militarization without insuring his continuing control over it.”

It will be interesting to see who will reward the “resistance” for its courage, and how. If Aristide must fall, let us hope still for real, meaningful elections in Haiti, soon. But let us not expect them.


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