Haiti: Resisting Imperial Temptation

Haiti is devolving into what conventional political observers call anarchy, in the sense of being a place where chaos, disorder and violence reign supreme. For better or worse – mostly for worse – as has been the case for most of its 200-year history as a nominally independent country, Haiti’s problems do not arise from a lack of government but from a government (as is so often the case with places deemed “anarchic”) that is itself the chief cause of chaos and disorder. Consequently, we are hearing increasing calls for U.S. intervention in Haiti, some of them undoubtedly well-meaning and motivated in part by the near-certainty that things in Haiti will get worse before they get better, and innocent Haitians will suffer the consequences.

The Bush administration, which may still be operating under the delusion that things are getting better in Iraq, is hardly immune to the siren call to stage a “humanitarian” intervention and establish a measure of order and stability. The likelihood of being able to do so successfully, however, is hardly better and may be worse than when the Clinton administration staged an armed intervention to restore the dogmatic leftist (although with brutal authoritarians like Aristide concepts like “left” and “right” refer more to the tenor of rhetoric chosen to justify brutality than to anything like actual policy) President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Aristide, who was actually elected but ousted in a 1991 coup, is president once again following a 2000 election marred by corruption and intimidation. A rebel movement led to a great extent by people who used to be Aristide allies but became disgusted with his misrule has taken several northern cities and is on the verge of taking the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Last weekend the Bush administration succumbed to the temptation to try to be an “honest broker” in Haiti and put forward a plan, supported by several other countries, that was supposed to lead to something resembling order. President Aristide claimed to accept it but failed to implement any of its provisions – hardly a novelty for him. The rebels have declined to sign on. The administration has sent about 50 US Marines to Haiti, ostensibly to safeguard the US embassy. But pressure is building to make them the precursor of a much larger military force.


Back in 1994, when a Democratic president was leading the charges, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah put the matter rather succinctly: “We do not have any vital interest in Haiti … The administration is playing a high stakes game that commits the United States to an invasion of a sovereign nation and that opens up an indefinite stay of US forces on that island. There is no consensus in Congress or among the American people for intervening in Haiti, or for a prolonged occupation of that country.”

What will Orrin Hatch have to say now that a Republican president is being pressured to intervene once again?

If anything, as noted, the prospects for success are less auspicious than in 1994 and 1995 when the Clinton administration decided to try to run Haiti for a while. Although there were terrorists operating in the world back then, they did not present anywhere near the kind of systematic threat they do now. The US military, which had been trimmed only modestly in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not coming off a costly and demoralizing war that had not been completely resolved, and military leaders were not complaining seriously about being overstretched. Although he was a thug back then, Aristide had not yet worn out his welcome completely with the “international community;” indeed, many advocates of intervention were deluded or na├»ve enough to think that he was the key to a bright future in Haiti.

One aspect of the situation in Haiti made things worse in some ways then than they are now. Some four years of sanctions imposed (presumably with good intentions) in the wake of Aristide’s ouster had decimated Haiti’s economy (never strong at any time in its sad history). As usually happens with sanctions intended to punish political leaders, the regime found ways to get around or even to take advantage of the sanctions, while the Haitian people, in whose name the sanctions were imposed, did most of the suffering.

As Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine put it in their 2000 book, “Fool’s Errands:”

“In the four-year period between Aristide’s ouster and his return, Haiti’s GDP dropped perhaps another third, while its population continued to grow, and its arable land diminished. Foreign investors had fled to safer climes, like the Dominican Republic next door. As a result, Haiti’s unemployment rate shot up to astronomical proportions. Encouraging even more corruption in Haiti may not have been the intention of those who wanted to do something about Haiti, but the effect of the sanctions on corruption was real enough. Illegal foreign trade and smuggling further enriched Haitian officials already well-versed in the arts of international commerce not approved of by the World Trade Organization. Even more destructively, inflation, especially steep increases in the price of basic commodities like food, imposed an additional harsh burden on Haiti’s already impoverished population. The misery of the private sector was mirrored in the public sector, where basic tax-based services, like elementary school education and the provision of clean water, simply collapsed.”

It was mainly the sanctions that impelled the massive outflow of boat people from Haiti to Florida that so alarmed so many Americans in the early 1990s. The current crisis is likely to lead to more efforts at unauthorized emigration – the AP this week did a story about Haitians building boats and planning to take their chances, motivated more by economic decline than political unrest – but it is unlikely to be as massive as in the early 1990s. The likelihood of large numbers of boat people heading for the US, which some advocates of intervention will invoke as a reason for an intervention to head off the exodus, is simply not as great as it was in the early 1990s. And insofar as Haitians are becoming refugees for economic reasons more than from fear of unrest, an intervention is unlikely to improve Haiti’s economic situation any time soon; indeed, it might make the situation worse for a while.


Most people are unaware of the sheer scale of international assistance that was poured into Haiti following the Clinton intervention that restored Aristide to power in 1994. International aid workers went to work repairing roads, generators and the like. By October 1995, US Civil Affairs soldiers had completed 332 infrastructure projects and were at work on 375 others.

Tens of millions of dollars in aid money poured into Haiti – the US alone donated $97 million – and a fairly serious effort was made to build an independent, apolitical and reasonably non-thuggish police force and to establish a modestly honest justice system. Much of the foreign aid simply disappeared into the pockets of government ministers. By 1997 international lawyer William O’Neill reported that “Haitian justice lacks everything: financial resources, materials, competent personnel, independence, stature, and trust.”

International aid workers made a concerted and quite conscientious effort to establish a system of voting that would offer the government a shred of legitimacy and (someday perhaps) the people a chance to have a say in their governance. But Haiti has no history of democratic electioneering. It was ruled by the contemptible and brutal Duvaliers, father and son, from 1957 to 1986.

The 2000 parliamentary elections were an administrative disaster; independent observers were turned away from polling places and armed men stole ballot boxes. At least 15 people were killed and hundreds more were threatened with violence. Two members of the Provisional Electoral Council were forced to resign after grenade attacks on their headquarters, and one fled to the United States for fear of his life. Aristide was returned to power, and it is possible he got a majority of the votes, but there were so many irregularities and threats that he has no real legitimacy.

No wonder Luigi Einaudi, then assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, said in 2000, “With Haiti, the international community feels as if it has plowed the sea and invested uselessly.” In the final weeks of the Clinton presidency a State Department spokesman admitted, “There is always a limit. You can’t impose democracy.”


For any number of reasons, some still rooted in the experience of French colonialism, which left the island with two radically different societies that literally didn’t even speak the same language; Haiti has never been well governed and is riven with mutual distrust. In the 20th century the United States made three major efforts to change the island’s political and economic culture, each of which has failed and left resentment and bitterness in its wake.

The Woodrow Wilson administration, fearing German influence, invaded Haiti in 1915 and the United States occupied and ran the country until 1934. The Kennedy administration made a concerted effort to reshape Haiti through the Alliance for Progress from 1961 to 1963. And the Clinton administration made its own effort from 1994 to 2000.

Unfortunately, as Dempsey and Fontaine observed in their 2001 book, “Haiti is simply not ripe for nation building. It does not possess the human and physical capital or the natural resources to rise above extreme poverty. Nor does it have the political stability or legal institutions to inspire investor confidence, foreign or domestic. Few, if any, in the Haitian government favor a working market economy or even understand what the term means, and no widespread political culture prevails with widespread acceptance of the habits, beliefs, and values that sustain democracy or democratic institutions.”

If anything, this is more true today, in the wake of the current unrest, than it was in 2001. Haiti’s political and economic condition is unspeakably sad, even tragic. The impulse to want to do something to improve the country is understandable. But a realistic assessment suggests that the United States is more likely to make conditions worse rather than better through a military intervention, even one designed (or intended) to ameliorate the lot of the Haitian people.

If he has an iota of common sense – especially in an election year – President Bush will resist the siren call to “do something” in Haiti. It is tough to admit one is likely to fail in such a small and in some ways charming country. But that’s the truth, as hard as it might be to swallow.

If France wants to give it a try, let them have at it, but if I were a French citizen I would be skeptical.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).