Cry Haiti

Trouble brews as country heads toward bicentennial

Kevin Y. Kim

A demonstrator demands the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.
Haiti celebrates its 200th anniversary in January. But the majority of citizens of the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest democracy still face shorter lives, subsist on less than $1 a day, and struggle, jobless, in a country sliding toward disorder, isolation and permanent penury.

“Haiti’s verged on crisis more times than I can count,” says Merrie Archer, human rights director for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. “This past year alone, it’s courted catastrophe any number of times, yet reaches the brink and pulls back again and again.”

In 2000, the country held legislative elections partly challenged by international monitors who quit the country without overseeing the presidential re-election of populist firebrand Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since then, Haiti has been stuck in political gridlock, unleashing a cycle of violence that has left the hands of government partisans, opposition figures and lawless thugs equally bloodied.

On October 26, a girl riding a bicycle in the northern town of Gonaives died from a stray bullet during an attack by antigovernment forces on a police station. One month later, Aristide partisans fired on a crowd of protesters outside a courthouse in Petit-Goave, wounding a 2-year-old. As Haiti’s political crisis worsens, such tragic events increasingly become everyday incidents—in the past two months, violent demonstrations have left at least 15 dead and dozens wounded.

Critical independent reporting in Haiti largely has disappeared. Since 2000, about 30 Haitian journalists have gone into exile. The murder of its most prominent, outspoken journalist Jean Dominique, remains unsolved in the burgeoning docket of a judiciary powerless to stop spreading human rights abuses. Already 146th in the world in human development and the poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is the region’s second-most dangerous country for journalists, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The growing crisis coincides with Aristide’s long-delayed promise to hold elections in November and December. Not only are Haiti’s peace and development at stake, but more than $500 million in foreign aid frozen by the international community in response to the 2000 elections—including millions of dollars in direct U.S. aid to the Haitian government, which direly needs to bolster its democratic institutions.

Many observers, including U.S. officials, regard Aristide’s ability to conduct free and fair elections pivotal to Haiti’s problems and future international support. But that narrow focus ignores the inability of the recently formed Haitian National Police (HNP) to ensure safe elections that include the political opposition. After a promising start under U.N. auspices, the HNP’s abandonment by a fickle international community in the mid-’90s led to its corruption and politicization by competing government factions.

“I’m not sure Aristide has total control of the country,” says Robert Maguire, a former State Department staffer and leading Haiti expert. “There are deeply ingrained political habits in Haiti that, if not Aristide himself, then many around him have fallen captive to.” Louis Joinet, a recent U.N. envoy to Haiti, has reported that the HNP is demoralized by its inability to enforce significant rule of law, with some high-ranking officers simply quitting.

Unsurprisingly, as of press time the Haitian government had yet to announce an elections timetable. Instead of taking tension-reducing steps within its power, Aristide’s government seems content to muddle through for now. Either way, it’s unclear if Aristide can appease an intransigent opposition—partly composed of former authoritarian and elitist elements with disturbing ties to the International Republican Institute, a D.C.-based advocacy group influential in Bush administration circles. Unlike Aristide, the opposition lacks popular support and seems more bent on ousting Aristide and destabilizing Haiti than reaching any electoral compromise.

“The government and opposition need to put their money where their mouths are and come up with a viable program for the country,” Archer says.

After three years of an inconsistent, hands-off approach leaving Haiti policy strongly driven by special interests, the Bush administration is showing signs of a closer engagement with Haiti that could facilitate a much-needed breakthrough. Recent bilateral cooperation over narco-trafficking and refugee migration—two of Washington’s primary concerns—has led the Bush administration to reiterate U.S. support for Aristide, appoint a high-level envoy to study the ongoing crisis and approve $202 million in multilateral loans.

But simply giving aid, shunning Aristide or holding rushed, one-sided elections are unlikely to stem Haiti’s downward spiral. Equal, sustained pressure must be brought by the U.S.-led international community against Aristide and the opposition to finally put Haiti’s suffering people ahead of their mutually destructive self-interests.

“Aristide’s no devil, but no angel either,” Maguire says. “But instead of Bush’s past estrangement policy or Clinton’s soft love stance, we need a tough love policy holding everyone accountable.”

Kevin Y. Kim is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, L.A. Weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review, and elsewhere.
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