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#2768: Christian Century article (fwd)

From: Merrill Smith <advocacy@bellatlantic.net>

The Christian Century article is available on line at:
<http://www.christiancentury.org/editorials.html#Haiti in extremis>.

The Christian Century 
Updated as of March 1, 2000
Haiti in extremis Disillusioned with democracy 

When the last remnants of Operation Uphold Democracy--a UN peacekeeping
force but predominantly American for much of its duration--left Haiti a
few weeks ago, some observers voiced dire predictions of a descent into
chaos and civil war. Time will tell. But others argued that the
situation could hardly be worse than it is. Undertaken in 1994, the
primary purpose of the U.S./UN mission was to restore to power in
tyranny-ravaged Haiti its first democratically elected president,
Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Though the charismatic Aristide--at that time a
Salesian priest--had won a landslide victory (67 percent of the vote) in
1990, he was ousted by a military coup after only seven months in
office, and during his three years of exile the Haitian army and
paramilitary groups killed some 4,000 unarmed civilians, most of them
Aristide supporters.

In returning Aristide to power, the U.S. hoped also to restore stability
to Haiti--giving stability priority over democracy, though it achieved
neither. The U.S. worked some infrastructure wonders, building and
repairing roads, schools, wells and latrines, but politically the
intervention was largely a disaster. Well-meaning Green Berets, who
thought they had been sent to the island to protect the innocent, found
themselves being ordered not to curb the violence but--with the Somalia
debacle in mind--to protect themselves first of all; hence the title of
Bob Shacochis's recent book on Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion. The
Haitian army was disbanded without being disarmed, leaving a troubled
nation overflowing with a wealth of weapons. Killers who took part in
the coup were not held accountable.

Incredibly, Washington chose to regard the Front for the Advancement and
Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a euphemism for the country's largest death
squad, as a legitimate opposition party and the moral equal of the
Aristide government. Its head, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, though wanted
in Haiti on charges of murder, torture and rape, is enjoying safe haven
in New York, "living," says Shacochis, "the exemplary life of a retired
terrorist, his brain packed in an electric fog of cocaine. His erstwhile
band of thugs remain scattered through Haitian society, popping up every
so often to commit robbery and homicide." When he fled to the U.S., the
FRAPH chieftain was briefly detained by the INS; his being set free
perhaps had something to do with the fact that--as he likes to boast--he
was on the payroll of the CIA (which, incidentally, conducted a campaign
to try to discredit Aristide as a mentally unbalanced radical).

When he returned to Haiti in '94, President Aristide unfortunately made
promises to the people that were beyond his capacity to deliver on.
Moreover, though supplying considerable aid, the U.S., ambivalent at
best about Aristide, did nothing to support his populist and
redistributionist agenda--and, according to some, actively sought to
subvert that agenda. Nor did Aristide have time to accomplish much; a
U.S. condition of his return was that he not seek to regain the three
lost years (and the Haitian constitution bars consecutive presidential
terms). His successor, René Préval, though a more practical man, has not
been very effective either. Long at loggerheads with an
opposition-dominated (and obstructionist) parliament, Préval eventually
dismissed that body; in effect, he rules by decree--such rule as there
is. But with no budgets being passed, foreign aid and loans have
declined sharply. The government essentially is in a state of paralysis.
Though Préval was Aristide's choice to succeed him, they are rivals
now--partly because Préval has been more willing than Aristide to accede
to the severe austerity measures demanded by the U.S., the IMF and the
World Bank as conditions of aid and loans. In Aristide's view, these
measures--such as privatization and the virtual abolition of
tariffs--will in the long run benefit only Haiti's tiny elite.

In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, formal
unemployment is close to 70 percent, and 85 percent of the population
live in dire poverty. The illiteracy and infant mortality rates are
extremely high, and in Port-au-Prince alone, 4,000 homeless children
wander the streets. Last summer Lafanmi Selavi, the center for street
children that Aristide runs (and which he writes about in this issue),
was taken over by a well-armed group of young men for more than 12
hours--until police firing tear gas forced most of them to surrender;
about 30 were arrested but some got away. The attackers claimed that
Aristide had promised them jobs and had lied to them. A spokesman for
Aristide said the youths were "gangsters" who had been paid to smear
Aristide's reputation. Perhaps so. But some of them were graduates of
the center--and in any case the incident is illustrative of Haiti's
economic plight.

Elections, both parliamentary and municipal, are scheduled for later
this month in Haiti, but it will be a near miracle if they take place.
They have been postponed several times already. In fact, the country has
not had a parliamentary election since April 1997--an election that was
marred by charges of vote fraud, and for which only about 7 percent of
the voters showed up.

But despite their increasing disillusionment with democracy, the Haitian
people remain hopeful. There will be a presidential election in
December, and Aristide--now a husband and a father, by the way--will
probably be a candidate; he is eligible this time. And though his
movement has fractured and his following is smaller than it once was, he
will probably win. A passionate man, Aristide sometimes comes out with
provocative rhetoric he later regrets. "I have serious gaps here and
there," he himself has said. But for all his flaws, Aristide may very
well be Haiti's best hope--especially a mellower, less mercurial and
less confrontational Aristide. After all, he is--quoting Shacochis--"the
only Haitian president who ever attempted to lead his people out of
darkness: the only Haitian chief of state who ever seemed to display an
ideology beyond self." 

All material copyright 2000 the Christian Century Foundation.