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A Break with Haiti’s Past?

April 2004

Recently, the U.N.’s special representative returned from an assessment trip to Haiti. Since then, Reginald Dumas has made statements that offer a glimmer of hope for a country in need of positive signals.

He insisted that the U.N. must make a long term commitment if it wishes to overcome the “start-stop cycle that has characterized relations between the international community and Haiti.” Furthermore, the U.N. must provide “sustained assistance…that involves the people of Haiti.”

This, of course, begs the question of how the Haitian people will be involved. Dumas remains anchored in the U.N. idiom of building state institutions. In the case of Haiti, it will be just as important to strengthen nongovernmental organizations and to mend the torn relations between the state and the Haitian nation. Mr. Dumas’s itinerary in Haiti shows too little effort to reach nongovernmental organizations that must be part of any success story there.

Nevertheless, the U.N. must take the initiative once more in Haiti. Any international effort led by the United States and U.S. Marines is going to lack credibility with most Haitians…for good historical reasons. Already many Haitian organizations are calling for an immediate end to what they see as a U.S. occupation of Haiti. The plan for Brazil to assume command of a multinational force in Haiti must move forward quickly.

The current crisis in Haiti certainly predated the February 29 departure of ex-President Jean Bertrand Aristide. The political storm around Aristide has, however, altered the nature of Haiti’s troubles.

U.S. conservatives opposed Aristide from the moment he entered Haitian politics, and did everything they could to undermine him. At the same time, Aristide’s leadership generated broad civil opposition to his presidency within Haiti. In the end, he also faced a rogue’s rebellion led by urban gangs that his government had armed, as well as disgruntled ex-military men, including several known murderers and torturers.

The U.S. government certainly played a determinant role in the Aristide endgame. Many Haiti supporters join Aristide in insisting that the ex-President left Haiti in a U.S.-sponsored coup, and they demand an investigation of the U.S. role. Such an investigation should take place, regardless of the Bush Administration’s clear intent to avoid any more embarrassing revelations in an election year. Mr. Dumas maintains that a UN “facilitated” investigation is still on the table due to an informal request by Haiti’s CARICOM neighbors.

While much remains unclear in Haiti today, the armed remnants of Haiti’s military and paramilitary groups pose a clear and present danger. Reliable information connects these people to reprisal killings and other abuses during the current crisis. Little is being done to disarm these groups, and it appears that the Haitian National Police is quietly integrating many ex-military men into its ranks. This is a very troubling trend in a country with Haiti’s history of military abuse.

The international community can prove that it is serious about a break with the past by moving quickly to disarm all illegal armed groups in Haiti, including supporters of the ex-President and members of the rebel groups. Known criminals should be arrested immediately, and investigations of claims of abuse during the Aristide era must go forward.

But Haiti cannot change without doing something about the grinding poverty of its people. This will require confronting a heritage of injustice with roots stretching back to the days of Saint Domingue.

Aid to Haiti is an urgent priority, but so are changes in multilateral policy toward the poorest country in the hemisphere. Aid given with one hand amounts to little if our other hand grasps Haiti’s throat and squeezes it with demands to lower tariffs, privatize public services and reduce social spending. Can we not say that IMF-imposed “structural adjustment” reform in Haiti is a definitive failure, and seek another form of economic cooperation? A new view of cooperation with Haiti will not solve the country’s problems-only Haitians can do that-but it will open a door to a new future.

We welcome the U.N.’s hopeful words on Haiti, but await the concrete actions that will signal a true break with the past.

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