National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 12, 2004

Looters trash a portrait of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Feb. 29 after the president went into exile.
-- CNS/Reuters
Democracy appears the loser in Haiti


Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- swamped in controversy and political paralysis since his re-election in 2000 -- was forced into exile last week in what some are calling Haiti’s liberation and others, a tragedy.

In 200 years of independence, the people of Haiti have voted into their presidential palace exactly two men, on three occasions. Twice they chose the former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and once his prime minister. The rest came to power by force. In Haiti, coup d’états -- often bloody -- seem as much a political certainty as presidential elections in the United States.

Haitians have just seen their country’s 33rd coup. At least that’s the word Aristide is using from exile in Africa. He blames the armed rebels who spent most of February fighting their way to Port-Au-Prince, demanding his resignation. He blames his political opposition that has forced a political freeze since his inauguration.

And he blames the United States.

His friends, colleagues and supporters concur. Others who have known him for a long time, however, say he became enamored of power and began acting like the dictators he once worked to overthrow.

Reconciling the many takes on Aristide may be a puzzle forever unsolved. And it is a distraction from the big question to emerge from events in Haiti: Why did the United States support -- covertly or overtly, implicitly or explicitly -- the forced resignation of a democratically elected leader?

There is, of course, speculation. The United States was sending a message to other populist leaders in the region, goes one theory. And another: The United States saw an opportunity to rid itself of a man no American president ever really liked with hopes of exchanging him for somebody more like the man U.S. officials wanted him to be for more than a decade.

“The United States could have stopped this at any time,” said human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The armed rebels’ first success in their push towards Port-Au-Prince was the taking of the seaside city of Goinaves. “All the Bush administration had to do,” Ratner said, “was say to the opposition, ‘We’re going to land 100 Marines in Goinaves’ -- and that’s the ball game. We all know that.”

Instead, administration officials offered statement after statement that to some seem hollow in the face of recent events.

Decision not to defend Aristide

Just days into the rebel push, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters, “President Aristide was elected by the Haitian people and his departure from the scene as president can only be by democratic, constitutional means. And it would not be appropriate … to force him from office against his will.”

Aristide’s will is a contentious subject. Haitians woke up Feb. 29 to news that their president had resigned and fled the country under cover of darkness. The next day, Aristide claimed the event had been a U.S.-led “kidnapping.”

Colin Powell called Aristide’s assertions “absurd.”

Still, the United States made a clear decision not to defend Aristide -- militarily or otherwise. And that is what frustrates many observers.

“The entire world should be condemning U.S. behavior in allowing this removal of somebody who was a democratically elected leader,” said Melinda Miles of the Quixote Center, a U.S.-based Catholic justice and peace organization that has been working in Haiti for more than a decade.

Just back from Haiti, where she experienced the undoing of Aristide’s presidency from a rural area in the south, Miles is not nostalgic about the fallen leader.

She acknowledges “inadequacies of Aristide’s rule,” placing at the top of the list Aristide’s reliance on patronage -- a tradition tracing back to the days of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. But she believes Aristide tried in his final embattled months to compromise, agreeing to a power-sharing plan that his opposition rejected outright.

Still, she is cautious. “I think we have yet to see the true story on what steps Aristide and the government had taken in the last few months to try to retain power. I’m afraid some of those stories will be damning.”

It is talk of a corrupted Aristide that dominates popular discourse. But some are still protective of the man who was once considered by many a savior.

Ratner has known Aristide and his wife, Mildred -- a Haitian-American lawyer -- for years.

“It would be so unlike his character to be involved in what I read in the papers,” Ratner said. “Drug dealing? No way in the world. And it would be hard for me to believe that he would actually send people out to kill people.

“We’re not talking about a blood-thirsty dictator here,” Ratner said. “We’re talking about a guy who tried to rule in a very difficult situation. Amazing contending forces. And the U.S. like a millstone around his neck.”

On the millstone, Miles agrees. “The U.S. had a policy of withholding all international assistance from the government of Haiti,” Miles said, explaining that some funds were funneled through nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits working inside Haiti.

International aid was frozen after Aristide’s Lavalas party won overwhelmingly in what are considered flawed elections, though even detractors acknowledge the party would have seen sweeping victories even without the election irregularities.

“We’ve condemned that embargo because only the government has the national reach to improve health infrastructure or to deliver potable water to people.” Miles said. “And the loans that have been withheld include loans for health and potable water.”

Meanwhile, the United States, through the International Republican Institute, a federally funded Washing-ton D.C.-based nonprofit organization, was empowering Aristide’s political opposition with economic and political support. It is a project the institute calls “party building.”

Weighing the criticisms against the obstacles he faced, some say it is impossible to know what kind of leader Aristide might have been. “It’s like climbing a mountain where you’re being pushed down all the time,” said Ratner.

Miles agrees. “The government did build some schools, some public housing, they finished some roads. But we’ll never really know if they would have fulfilled the social platform that they said they would fulfill.”

James Morrell, executive director of the Haiti Democracy Project and one-time adviser to Aristide, does not worry about the leader he might have been.

“He just degraded into your type A tyrant,” Morrell said.

To the man who once helped Aristide navigate his way through the political channels that would ultimately return him to power in 1994, Aristide is more a small-time Mugabe than he is a closeted Mandela.

“He had to have all the power,” Morrell said. “He was so insecure and egotistical that he had to have it all.”

What comes next?

The immediately pressing issue for Haitians is what comes next.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe, who declared himself Haiti’s new “military chief” after a victory parade through the capital, is to many a ghost from Haiti’s dark past. He wants an army again, and he wants power over it.

Often appearing at his side, urging Haitians to forget the past and look toward the future, is former army death squad leader Louis Jodel Chamblain. Also a leader of the recent armed revolt, Chamblain was sentenced in absentia in 1993 to life in prison for mass murder.

Demobilized by Aristide in 1995, the army was a symbol of repression for many in the country. “Everybody in Haiti knows what the military means,” said Miles. “It wasn’t so long ago -- the early ’90s -- that people were being killed every day by the army.

“The political opposition is a loosely united group and the only thing that united them was their hatred for Aristide,” she continued. “So now that he’s gone, what will they do? Will they splinter because they all want power?”

Morrell, meanwhile, praises the men with guns who accomplished in three weeks what the political opposition tried to accomplish for three years, and he sees the two unsteady forces working together.

“What you want to do,” he said, “is support the democratic actors so that they can subsume the armed fellows in a larger consensus.”

And back it up with an international force: On this Miles and Morrell agree. “What Haiti needs most,” Miles said, “is the troops that are there to make sure that Haiti can hold free and fair elections.”

Still, the questions linger: What are the lessons learned here? Does a country trying to establish legitimate democracy benefit from the forced resignation of a president the people voted in?

No, says Brian Concannon, an American human rights lawyer who has worked for the Haitian government’s International Lawyers Office for nearly a decade.

“I think it’s fair that there are criticisms [of Aristide], just like there are criticisms of George W. Bush,” Concannon said. “I think it is unfair to use those criticisms as justification for violent regime change.

“If you don’t like the current government, you vote it out. If George Bush were to resign today, I would be happy. But I certainly would do what I could to oppose anybody kicking him out unconstitutionally,” he added.

“The right thing is to support democracy.”

Jeff Guntzel is a contributing writer who lives in Indianapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2004

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