A betrayal of democracy

The former National Security Council chief on Latin America says that Bush has created a disaster in Haiti.

By Arturo Valenzuela
Published March 10, 2004 8:28PM (EST)

The Bush administration's response to the escalating humanitarian crisis in Haiti underscores once again the enormous gap that exists between its rhetoric on national security matters and its practice. Although loudly proclaiming that the consolidation of democratic institutions in fragile democracies is a cardinal objective of U.S. foreign policy, the administration's woeful neglect of the escalating conflict in Haiti and its bumbling attempts at crisis management when matters spun out of control have seriously undermined the efforts of three previous administrations to safeguard American interests by steering Haiti on a democratic course.

For months the situation in Haiti had deteriorated as the country faced a stalemate between government and opposition and the institutions of governance faltered. The nation's parliament had ceased to function as President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his opponents failed to agree on the shape of impartial electoral institutions. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) had worked hard to come up with an accord between the embattled chief executive and his rivals to break the deadlock, that effort received little active support from the United States, whose influence and engagement was essential to forging a solution. Indeed, high-level U.S. officials were conspicuous for their absence in Port au Prince, allowing their personal disdain for Aristide to color their judgment regarding the urgency of addressing the sharp deterioration in Haiti's internal order with its clearly negative implications for American interests.

Aristide's divided and weak opposition correctly read the U.S.'s indifference as a sign that Washington was hoping that Aristide would implode, allowing them to fill the political vacuum with Washington's support. Only when brutal and unsavory elements from Haiti's recent past threatened to overrun the political leaders on both sides of the political spectrum by force of arms did Washington respond by tabling a sensible proposal for institutional reform and power sharing between Aristide and opposition party leaders. Secretary of State Colin Powell correctly argued that the solution to the Haitian crisis required a respect for the constitutional order and the legitimacy of its elected president.

The administration's proposal, however, was not only late in coming; it lacked a credible support mechanism to restore order. Washington failed to turn immediately to the United Nations Security Council to seek the deployment to Port au Prince of a peacekeeping force that would have guaranteed implementation of the accord by neutralizing the insurgent forces. Inexplicably, U.S. officials also failed to invoke the OAS's democracy clause, which would have brought hemispheric support and legitimacy to its mediation efforts, a procedure that has been utilized in numerous other challenges to the democratic process in the Americas.

As a result, Haiti's opposition was quick to read the administration's lack of real resolve and open hostility toward Aristide for what it was. While giving tacit support to the tactics of the remnants of Haiti's army irregular forces rampaging across the country, opposition leaders refused to accept the terms set down by the State Department, confident that the administration would not press them to sign on to the proposal, even though Aristide fully accepted it.

When the Bush administration quickly caved to the opposition's intransigence and made it clear that it was not prepared to mobilize an international force to guarantee democracy until after the democratically elected president left office, it undermined its own peace proposal and made the president's position untenable. Rather than seeking a solution within the framework of Haitian democracy, the Bush administration rapidly concluded that Aristide was the principal problem, naively assuming that ushering a democratically elected president out of Port au Prince would usher in a better day for Haiti. "I am happy he is gone. He'd worn out his welcome with the Haitian people," proclaimed Vice President Dick Cheney.

The argument, proffered by administration officials to justify its actions, that the U.S. cannot be responsible for placing American soldiers in harm's way to support every elected president in trouble, is belied by the fact that the administration knew it would have little choice but to send troops to Haiti anyway. Ironically, those troops will face a far more daunting task of guaranteeing political order with Aristide's departure than they would have had they been called upon to support a negotiated solution.

There is no doubt that Aristide deeply disappointed many of his supporters at home and abroad. Elected president in a landslide with over 80 percent support in December 1990, the charismatic leader proved to be an inflexible and authoritarian figure, with little appetite for the politics of accommodation and compromise and a penchant for looking the other way as his associates became involved in the drug trade. Aristide embodied the bitter, confrontational, winner-take-all nature of Haitian politics, rather than the politics of respect for the rights of others, the cornerstone of the democratic ideal.

As Haitians are wont to say, "In Haiti a paranoid is defined as someone who has all the facts," underscoring the country's history of violence and revenge. Aristide himself had been the target of several assassination attempts and was overthrown in a violent military coup only eight months after assuming office by a brutal military establishment with close ties to the nation's tiny elite. When he was restored to office three years later by an American-led invasion aimed at restoring democracy, curbing massive human rights abuses, and discouraging uncontrolled immigration to the United States, he moved quickly with U.S. support to outlaw the army.

But the Haitian military's officers and soldiers were never disarmed, leaving the government and the population protected by a small and ill-equipped police force, with Aristide and his followers skeptical of the concept of a loyal opposition, a view also shared by his opponents. And yet, despite the daunting challenges of democratic construction in such a context, human rights abuses fell sharply, uncontrolled migration subsided, and the fledgling democratic process began to work with the support of the United States, the European Union and other countries in the hemisphere -- until, that is, the Bush administration concluded that it was better to disengage than to appear to be supportive of a flawed leader restored to office by its predecessor.

But the problems of Haiti go beyond the actions or limitations of one man. A foreign policy based on a form of manichaeism, that sees the world as divided into "good guys" who should be supported and "bad guys" who should be purged, is ill-equipped to deal with the real world of social forces in conflicts, structural and political impediments to change, and the deep asymmetries between the haves and the have-nots. Aristide was only the first president in 200 years since independence to have been elected democratically in a fair contest. It is a truism that democracy does not form overnight and that it faces particularly difficult challenges in societies characterized by deep social divisions, grinding poverty and political conflict. Democracies are forged when opponents finally realize that they need rules for mutual restraint in order to agree to disagree peacefully; that ultimately such rules are the best guarantee of genuine security and progress.

In this context, the State Department's belated proposal to address the Haitian crisis was on the mark, not only because it preserved the constitutional order and called on both Aristide and his opponents to make concessions while empowering governmental institutions and the rule of law. It was also on target because it acknowledged that Aristide remained a powerful force and was clearly the most popular figure in the country. He alone exercised authority over armed factions created to support his party and movement, forces that will adamantly resist being displaced by their enemies for fear of being annihilated. Those enemies have now been empowered to seek retribution precisely because Aristide has been forced from office.

By bringing the warring parties into an agreement that they all resisted, the U.S. would have obliged Aristide to accept restraint over his ability to wield arbitrary power and diffuse the armed confrontation between militants. It would have also forced the feckless opposition to think of an effective strategy to advance its own support among the people rather than always looking to Washington to advance its cause. But Secretary of State Powell was overruled and the State Department proposal undermined by the Bush administration itself.

Now the attempt to resolve Haiti's impasse without Aristide brings to the negotiating table individuals who have little real support in the country and don't control the increasingly anomic violence. Rather than a formula aimed at democratic consolidation, the administration's "road map" for Haiti represents a serious step backward from the hard-won if incomplete efforts at institution-building that began to take root in the Clinton administration, opening the door once again for a return to human rights abuses, immigration pressures and a further deterioration of the social and political order. It is a sober reminder that a policy of neglect is no substitute for a policy of engagement, and that a policy obsessed with personalities is no substitute for one that understands the complex forces at work in these troubled times. Unfortunately, the American people will once again be called upon to expend life and treasure to compensate for official missteps.

Arturo Valenzuela

Arturo Valenzuela directs the Center for Latin American Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for inter-American affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

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