The election of René Préval to the presidency of Haiti last December, followed by the staged departure of American troops after a year-long occupation, is being hailed as a major foreign-policy success for the United States, and for the Clinton administration in particular. Not only (it is said) did we restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power three years after his overthrow by a military junta; we also engineered an orderly transition from one civilian-elected president to another, virtually the only such transition in Haitian history, and we effectively demobilized and disarmed the Haitian armed forces, a major source of political instability. We did all this, moreover, in concert with the United Nations, thus conferring international authority on our actions.
In brief, a victory for democracy, and a rebuke to those who predicted a Haitian quagmire. But is it, in fact, democracy the Clinton administration brought to Haiti in its “Operation Restore Democracy”? True, we did engineer the return of Aristide; and, true, two election cycles (one for parliament, one to select Aristide’s successor) were held during the U.S.-UN military occupation. By almost any other standard, however, Haiti remains light years away from our stated political objectives, and, what is more to the point, shows few signs of moving in the right direction.
There is, first and foremost, the issue of Aristide himself, still the dominant political figure on the island. A former Salesian priest who rose to prominence in the late years of the Duvalier regime,1 Aristide was elected in 1990 as the candidate of a coalition of opposition parties, the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD). During his eight months in office in 1991, Aristide, an accomplished demagogue who specializes in spellbinding speeches in Creole, revealed an authoritarian appetite which alienated not only the major power centers of Haitian society—the church, the business community, the military—but many of his friends as well. Not content with purging former supporters of the Duvaliers, Aristide began to replace newly-elected mayors, many of whom had compiled long records of fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, with local committees drawn from his own Lavalas movement. He named judges on his own recognizance, and preferred to govern through an inner circle of followers selected wholly on the basis of personal loyalty or ideological affinity.
If coalition politics was not to Aristide’s taste, neither was having to negotiate with the Haitian congress. By mid-1991, relations between the two branches of the government had deteriorated to the point that Aristide’s supporters were openly threatening legislators with the “Père Lebrun,” the local version of “necklacing”—being put to death with a burning, gasoline-soaked tire dropped over one’s head.
Far from calling for calm, Aristide, in his public pronouncements, often seemed to endorse his more fanatical followers, once offering this paean to the Père Lebrun: “What a nice tool! What a nice device! . . . It is elegant, attractive, splendorous, graceful, and dazzling. It smells good. Wherever you go, you feel like smelling it!”
When Haiti’s legislators began to debate a vote of no-confidence in August 1991, proAristide mobs invaded the galleries and threatened to necklace offending members. The crisis reached fever pitch in September, at which point the Haitian army ousted Aristide, and he escaped with his life thanks only to the intervention of the French, Venezuelan, and U.S. governments.
For saving his neck, neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration received much gratitude from Aristide, a man with a long career of vitriolic anti-Americanism. Installed in the Haitian embassy in Washington and counseled by a small army of expensive lobbyists, he cheered on the massive numbers of Haitians who were departing their island on flimsy rafts and balsa-wood boats and thus creating a major immigration crisis for the United States. At the same time, he turned aside all attempts at a compromise political solution brokered by the State Department and even favored by some of his supporters at home. In the end, President Clinton was hoist with the petard of his own 1992 campaign promises to restore Aristide to power. After suffering a major foreign-policy humiliation by withdrawing a warship from Port-au-Prince in October 1993 in the face of Haitian demonstrators on the wharf, he had to face either further embarrassment at the hands of the Haitian military or invasion and occupation of the country. Reluctantly, he chose the latter.
There are those who claim that Aristide’s behavior during his first period in office is now yesterday’s news—no longer relevant to Haitian political realities. But in fact it serves to reveal how Aristide conducts himself when there is no international authority breathing down his neck. And it also explains why the opposition in Haiti today is led not, as Aristide and his epigones would have it, by “oligarchs” or macoutes,2 but by people who formed part of the original FNCD coalition.
Indeed, even with an international authority breathing down his neck, things did not change much between the time of Aristide’s return in October 1994 and the elections last December. Although polls showed him the overwhelming favorite of eight out of ten Haitians, he and his followers seemed deeply offended by the notion that there should be other political forces in the country, even ones with democratic credentials, and they attempted with some success to neuter such forces or drive them underground. This they accomplished through the uninhibited use of all the discretionary devices traditionally afforded by political power in Haiti to assure favorable electoral outcomes—including the unauthorized disbursement of government resources, complicated registration procedures which effectively disenfranchised opponents, and packing the election boards with loyalists and party hacks.
Thus, the first round of congressional elections held in June 1995—Exhibit A for Operation Restore Democracy—was sufficiently irregular to provoke criticism even by the Carter Center, which monitored them. Despite the Clinton administration’s relentlessly upbeat evaluation of the balloting, Robert Pastor, who drafted the Center’s report, concluded that
overall, of the thirteen elections that I have observed, the June 25 Haitian elections were the most disastrous technically, and the counting process was the worst. . . . I personally witnessed more instances of fraud than I had ever seen in an election.
According to a poll commissioned the following month by the United States Information Agency, only 43 percent of Haitians considered elections in their country to be honest. As if in testimony to this perception, voter participation in the December presidential elections would be less than half what it had been five years earlier.
In the run-up to those elections, the Aristide administration would employ a policy of calculated ambiguity to keep the opposition parties off-balance. After weeks of rumors that the contest would be held sometime in January, the December 17 date was suddenly announced on November 6, with the deadline for filing just nine days later. The early date effectively prevented potential contenders from raising money from their supporters in the Haitian diaspora, the only possible source of campaign financing.
No sooner was the voting date announced, moreover, than the streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities were covered with graffiti (and later, printed posters) demanding “Three More Years,” that is, that Aristide unilaterally extend his term as president to compensate for the time lost in exile—a violation both of the Haitian constitution and of his solemn promise to President Clinton. Demonstrations to this effect were mounted by “popular organizations” owned and operated by Lavalas, and they often outshone the campaign rallies for Préval, the party’s own putative presidential candidate. Though Aristide did finally announce he would step down, he conspicuously refrained from endorsing Préval until 48 hours before Haitians were due to go to the polls.
Not that the outcome was in doubt. Although fourteen candidates appeared on the presidential ballot, Préval’s only serious challenger was Victor Benoit of the National Committee of the Congress of Democratic Movements, part of the original FNCD coalition. Leaders of other non-Lavalas political forces chose to sit out the contest. Given the circumstances, their discretion was unquestionably the better part of valor: even before the date was set, Aristide and his followers had effectively cleared the field of serious opposition, not only by chicanery but by intimidation, threats, and acts of violence.
This brings us to Haiti’s troubled internal-security situation. Supporters of Aristide and the newly elected President Préval never tire of warning that once foreign troops have departed, the principal danger facing the Haitian government will be a recrudescence of paramilitary right-wing groups like those that terrorized the population during the three years of military rule. It is difficult to see, however, whence this threat is supposed to come. The UN authority directly confiscated or bought back some 30,000 weapons, and the armed forces themselves have been dismantled. While individual incidents of right-wing terrorism can never be wholly ruled out in Haiti, as an organized political force the Right has been effectively broken. Most of its principal leaders and erstwhile financial supporters are out of the country, and—more pertinently—they no longer enjoy a privileged association with the official forces of order. Indeed, those forces are being replaced by a new Haitian national police, created and trained by the UN mission.
If truth be told, the principal security threat in Haiti today, as indeed for most of its history, is the government itself. And now another wrinkle has been added by the government’s penchant for seizing upon incidents of doubtful political relevance to silence or terrorize its critics.
A case in point involves the murder last November of Lavalas deputy Jean-Hubert Feuille, a cousin of Aristide. The president promptly attributed this act to a vast macoutiste plot. Speaking on nationwide radio and television at Feuille’s funeral service, Aristide urged Haitians to accompany policemen in weapons searches—in effect, to take the law into their own hands. He thereby unleashed an orgy of violence across the country in which private homes were burned, people were threatened and killed, and media sources not viewed as pro-Aristide were attacked by mobs.
In the days and weeks that followed—in other words, just before the scheduled “free and fair” elections for president—opposition politicians became favored targets of vigilantes. The office of the mayor of Port-au-Prince was sprayed by gunfire (two days earlier, he had accused Aristide of corruption). After repeated death threats and the torching of his home, Pierre Duly Brutus, former president of the Chamber of Deputies and a veteran Haitian democrat, was forced to seek exile in the United States. A squad of gunmen peppered the home of an independent presidential candidate who happened to be another (distant) cousin of Aristide. If incidents like these could take place under the nose of the UN security force, what can be expected once it has departed?
As for the weapons seized by the mobs “accompanying” the Haitian police, these have largely disappeared, or been stored without proper accounting in police arsenals. One persistent rumor is that they have been issued to special Lavalas cadres being trained on a ranch that was formerly the property of the Duvalier family. If this is the case, it would appear that Aristide and Préval are simply replicating the practice of past Haitian presidents and setting up a private force of their own to counterbalance the official forces of order—namely, the Keystone Cops formed by the United Nations and the United States to replace the Haitian military.
If the democratic foundations of Haiti’s new political order are of dubious quality, so, too, is the promise of long-term stability which underpinned much of the original U. S. decision to intervene. Préval assumes office under uniquely inauspicious circumstances. It is arguable that the only real center of political power in the country remains Aristide, and he has made no secret of the fact that he expects to come back in five years’ time, when the Haitian constitution permits him to run again. In the meantime, he will no doubt go on perfecting his talent for demagoguery. As one veteran of the Haitian Left put it recently, “Aristide has no interest in political parties, not even one of his own. His goal is not a one-party state but a mob permanently turning about his person.”
Préval’s job will be made all the harder by the fact that his predecessor studiously avoided making necessary economic decisions right up to the end of his term. The poorest country in the hemisphere, Haiti has been rendered far poorer by the economic embargo imposed by the international community (at the urging of the United States) during the last year of military rule. While this action failed in its stated purpose—namely, to persuade the Haitian generals to step down and allow Aristide to return—it did effectively eliminate the greater part of the country’s modern private sector. Assembly plants, which a decade ago offered work to some 80,000 people, today provide employment for only a tenth of that number. Political uncertainty and the precarious security environment have done nothing, so far, to lure back capital, domestic or foreign.
Haiti is surviving on a kind of international life-support system. Over the past year it has been pledged $1.2 billion worth of grants and loans (one-quarter of the total from the United States), but foreign aid alone will never make the island economically viable. Much of what has been promised has not been disbursed, pending economic reforms which have yet to occur, and there are reasons to doubt that such reforms will ever be instituted. Over the years, Aristide has denounced capitalism as a mortal sin, and privatization as an instrument of U.S. imperialism. After his return in 1994 he blew hot and cold on the subject, depending on whether his audience was Haitian or foreign. But his actions spoke louder than his words: in one case he simply refused to open the bids for state industries put up for auction; in another he threatened to imprison anyone who sold them off.
Aristide’s view, expressed repeatedly, is that Haiti has the right to fashion its own economic model, free of market logic or even a commitment to growth in the conventional sense of the term. In his scheme, the job of the international community (“the rich countries”) is to keep the checks coming regularly, without comment or complaint. When, in late 1995, this presumption proved a bit much even for the Clinton administration, which was holding up $100 million waiting for progress in privatization, Aristide responded by urging Haitians dissatisfied with their lot to take to the seas, and then turned aside U.S. protests with the arch observation that “some friends are urging us to create jobs, while on the other side they are withholding money which can be used to create jobs and keep the refugees here.”
This was a reprise of the tactics Aristide used so successfully to force the U.S. to act in September 1994; it is also a preview of things to come. Both Aristide and Préval clearly expect to leverage the Clinton administration’s fears—of a new refugee crisis, of a major foreign-policy setback in an election year, of pressure from the black political establishment in the United States—into a kind of unconditional political support. In Haiti, the Clinton administration has so heavily mortgaged American prestige and credibility that it is probably too late to cut our losses. Aristide and Préval know this, and act accordingly.
Even the Duvaliers at their putatively most anti-Communist could never have hoped to extract as much from Washington as Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his successor have already extracted, and can yet hope to extract, with their anti-Americanism, both overt and covert. If this be a triumph, it is difficult to imagine what a failure would look like.
1 François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971; his son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), from 1971 to 1986.
2 The tontons macoute were the Duvaliers’ private security force, which terrorized the Haitian population for the better part of three decades.