A Way Out for Haiti


Feb 19, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on February 19, 2004.

Ever since President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines in 1915, the United States has made intermittent — and sometimes inconsistent — efforts to bring about stability, democracy and prosperity in Haiti. The last decade, especially, has seen striking examples of contradictory American policy, and the cumulative result has been economic stagnation and turmoil in Haiti, where more than 40 people have died during an uprising this month.

American policy on Haiti in the last 10 years has gone from one extreme to another. The Clinton administration strongly supported the ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, sending 20,000 troops in 1994 to restore him to power. The current administration then cut off all American assistance to the Aristide government while giving advice and moral support to Mr. Aristide's opponents. Entrenched in their own economic and political divisions, Haitians tend to regard politics as an all-or-nothing, life-and-death struggle. The more support one side or the other has received from its partisans in Washington, the less inclined it has been to compromise.

If the United States is to help Haiti overcome its crisis through dialogue and reconciliation, therefore, Republicans and Democrats have to reconcile their own differences. And this may indeed be happening.

Secretary of State Colin Powell ended an apparent administration flirtation with a coup in Haiti, stating clearly on Tuesday that Mr. Aristide should finish his term. The Bush administration has concluded that Mr. Aristide, however flawed he may be, is the only legitimately elected leader in Haiti, and perhaps the sole remaining source of stability.

At the same time, Mr. Aristide's American supporters recognize his responsibility for the crisis and would like to see Haiti make a new start. Prominent African-Americans like the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, president of the National Black Leadership Roundtable, have suggested that Mr. Aristide should step down now.

This convergence of American opinion on Haiti offers the prospect of a more united and thus more effective American approach. The next step should be for leaders on both sides of the aisle to collaborate on a new strategy for Haiti. Such a strategy could be based on these elements:

  • Mr. Aristide should serve out his term, which expires in 2006. But at the same time, we need to prepare the succession. It will take at least the two years Mr. Aristide has left in office to organize fair elections. Major American and international efforts to do so should begin now.

  • The international community, either the United Nations or the Organization of American States, should administer the balloting, not just offer assistance. No Haitian government will be able to organize elections with even minimal standards of fairness.

  • Haiti should get much more help. This year the United States will give Baghdad 200 times more economic assistance than it will to Haiti, which is in much worse shape than Iraq even after the invasion. We must pay greater attention to a desperately poor, misgoverned nation in our backyard.

  • Some of this foreign aid should go toward strengthening Haitian institutions. Even the Clinton administration preferred to channel American aid through nongovernmental organizations, fearing that any money given to the Haitian government would be misspent. But no Haitian leader or leaders, however good their intentions, will be able to govern wisely if they have no institutions to rely on. We need to begin now to give Mr. Aristide's successors the wherewithal to govern.

  • The United States should get directly involved in ending the impasse between Mr. Aristide and his opponents. The United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, an organization of Caribbean states, can all play helpful roles, but only the United States has real influence in Haiti. A unified American stance could have a decisive impact, and a truly bipartisan diplomatic engagement now might still avoid the need for yet another military intervention.

It's often said that democracies end up doing the right thing only after having tried all the alternatives. We have tried the alternatives in Haiti and failed. Now we can see if doing the right thing will succeed.

James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, was President Bill Clinton's special envoy for Haiti from 1994 to 1996.

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