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Don't fall for Washington's spin on Haiti
By Jeffrey Sachs
Published: February 29 2004 by FT.com
The crisis in Haiti is another case of brazen US manipulation of a small, impoverished country. Much of the media portrayed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as an undemocratic leader who betrayed Haiti's democratic hopes and thereby lost the support of his erstwhile backers. He "stole" elections and intransigently refused to address opposition concerns. As a result he had to leave office, which he did on Sunday at the insistence of the US and France. Unfortunately, this is a very distorted view.
President George Bush's foreign policy team came into office intent on toppling Mr Aristide, and their efforts were apparently consummated on Sunday. Mr Aristide was long reviled by powerful US con
servatives such as former senator Jesse Helms, who obsessively saw him as another Fidel Castro in the Caribbean. Such critics fulminated when President Bill Clinton restored Mr Aristide to power in 1994, and they succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of US troops from Haiti soon afterwards, well before the situation in the country could be stabilised. In terms of help to rebuild Haiti, the US Marines left behind about 8 miles of paved roads in Port-au-Prince and essentially little else.
In the meantime, the so-called "opposition," a coterie of rich Haitians linked to the preceding Duvalier regime, former (and perhaps current) CIA operatives and decommissioned officers of the brutal Duvalier army disbanded by Mr Aristide, worked Washington political circles to lobby against him.
In 2000, Haiti ran parliamentary and then presidential elections, unprecedented in their scope. The parliamentary elections went off adequately, although not perfectly. Mr Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, clearly won the e
lection, although candidates who won a plurality rather than a majority, and who should have faced a second-round election, also gained seats. Objective observers declared the elections broadly successful, albeit flawed.
Mr Aristide won the presidential election later that year. The US media now reports that those elections were "boycotted by the opposition," and hence not legitimate, but this is a cruel joke to those who know Haiti. In fact, Haiti's voters elected Mr Aristide in late 2000 with an overwhelming mandate and the opposition, such as it was, ducked the elections. Duvalier thugs hardly constituted a winning ticket and as a result, they did not even try. Nor did they have to.
Mr Aristide's foes in Haiti benefited from tight links with the incoming Bush team; and thereby followed one of the great recent scandals of US foreign policy. The Bush team told Mr Aristide it would freeze all aid unless he agreed with the opposition over new elections for the contested Senate seats, among othe
r political demands. The wrangling led to the freezing of $500m in emergency humanitarian aid from the US, the World Bank and other multilateral organisations.
The tragedy, or joke, is that Mr Aristide had agreed to compromise, but the opposition simply came up with one excuse after another - it was never the right time to hold new elections, as proposed by Mr Aristide, because of "security" problems, they said. Whatever the pretext, the US maintained its aid freeze and Haiti's economy, cut off from bilateral and multilateral financing, went into a tailspin.
All this is now being replayed before our eyes. As Haiti slipped into deeper turmoil last month, Caribbean leaders called for a power-sharing compromise between Mr Aristide and the opposition. Once again, Mr Aristide agreed and the opposition balked, saying instead that the president had to leave. US Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly pressed opposition leaders to accept a compromise but they refused again. But rather than defending
Mr Aristide and dealing with opposition intransigence, the White House announced the president should step down.
The ease with which another Latin American democracy crumbled is stunning. What, though, has been the role of US intelligence agencies among the anti-Aristide rebels? How much money went from US-funded institutions and government agencies to help the opposition. And why did the White House abandon the Caribbean compromise proposal it had endorsed just days before? These questions have not been asked. Then again, we live in an age when entire wars can be launched on phony pretenses, with few questions asked in the aftermath.
What should happen now is unlikely to pass. The United Nations should help restore Mr Aristide to power for his remaining two years in office, making clear that Sunday's events were an illegal power grab. Second, the US should call on the opposition, which is largely a US construct, to stop all violence, immediately and unconditionally. Third, after years of lite
rally starving the people of Haiti, the long-promised and long-frozen aid flows of $500m should start immediately. These steps would rescue a dying democracy and at least help avert a possible bloodbath.
The writer is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University