For more than a decade, Washington has been bitterly divided on policy toward Haiti. In 1994 the Clinton administration, over virulent Republican opposition, sent U.S. troops into Haiti to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. In 2004, in a move condemned by Democrats, the Bush administration spirited Aristide out of Haiti and sent U.S. troops back into that country in support of the regime that had overthrown him.
During the intervening 10 years, mixed signals from Washington consistently exacerbated Haiti's endemic political divisions. The New York Times recently revealed one such episode, in which representatives of the federally funded International Republican Institute conducted activities in Haiti that, in the view of the U.S. ambassador at the time, undercut his efforts to promote reconciliation between Aristide and his domestic critics. Whatever the truth, the widespread impression was created in Port-au-Prince that influential voices in Washington opposed reconciliation and wished to see a premature end to the Aristide presidency.
This month's election in Haiti may finally have broken this pattern. René Préval, who served as Aristide's first prime minister in 1991 and who is still known in Haiti as Aristide's ''twin,'' was declared the winner on Feb. 16 after a retabulation of the vote.
The Bush administration, which would almost certainly have preferred a different outcome, nevertheless persevered in seeking to keep the electoral process on track to deal responsibly with the many charges of massive fraud and to promote an outcome that recognizes the clear choice of the Haitian people. Assuming that Préval ultimately gets the clear backing of a conservative Republican administration in Washington, the divisive and debilitating American debate on policy toward Haiti might finally be brought to a close.
U.S. should take the lead
It is easy enough to see the basis for a bipartisan accord on Haiti. Aristide is gone, and should stay that way. Representing the same constituency of impoverished, uneducated, desperate Haitians, Préval has emerged and won a clear political mandate. U.N. peacekeepers will need to remain for years to come as Haiti builds new institutions for public security and the rule of law.
The United States, as Haiti's near neighbor, should take the lead in helping to build those institutions and in alleviating the poverty of its long-suffering population.
Préval should be encouraged to be inclusive in his choice of cabinet and advisors. Opposition leaders should be encouraged to recognize and accept the election outcome and to work with the new government. No one in Washington should back dissident elements in Haiti that seek to challenge the results. No federally funded voices in Port-au-Prince should undercut policies being advanced by the American ambassador.
The durability of any such American accord will, of course, depend heavily on how Préval handles his new responsibilities. During his last term of office from 1996 to 2001, American officials found Préval to be personally honest, accessible and willing to act against abuses in his own regime, but rather undynamic and unwilling to press forward with necessary economic reforms. Without Aristide at his elbow, Préval may prove more decisive this time around.
Much responsibility for the lost opportunities of that earlier period also rests with the opposition parties that then controlled the Haitian Parliament and which were unwilling to pass the measures need to qualify for billions of dollars in international assistance. The Haitian Parliament that emerges from this most recent election may well be dominated by those same opposition figures.
Only a united message from both sides of the aisle in Washington has any hope of getting the various Haitian factions to work together for the good of that country. The early call made by President Bush to Préval, congratulating him on his victory and urging him to build an inclusive government, could signal a new era in U.S. Haitian relations.
James Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Haiti from 1994 to 1996. He heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Miami Herald on February 26, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.