Nation Building in Haiti: Can We Do Better This Time?

by April 12, 2004

I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war… I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us a couple billions of dollars, and I’m not so sure democracy’s any better off in Haiti than it was before.”
– Gov. George W. Bush, responding to a question in a presidential debate, October 2000

Less than four years ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush weighed in against President Clinton’s 1994 decision to commit troops to Haiti. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the 2,000 U.S. Marines that President Bush returned to the country in February on what can only be termed a nation-building exercise.

Both ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the U.S. government must share responsibility for the failures in Haiti since 1994. While Aristide allowed violent gangs to do his bidding and corruption to control his government, the United States failed to make the necessary long-term investments in building democratic institutions and meeting economic needs.

With the promise of elections in 2005, the transitional Haitian government and the United States have an opportunity to lay the groundwork for true democracy and economic development. However, to make this latest intervention a success, the United States must avoid the mistakes of the past by:

1) Rapidly expanding the international troop presence around the country;
2) Making good on promises to disarm both supporters and enemies of the former government;
3) Demonstrating a commitment to democracy rather than to a particular party or candidate; and
4) Rethinking the U.S. commitment and approach to nation-building.

Setting aside the controversy around Aristide’s resignation, it is imperative that the United States now send positive signals to Haiti’s government and people about its commitment to democratic and economic progress in the hemisphere’s poorest country.

Aristide’s Mistakes

Aristide started out as one of the most popular Haitian politicians of recent time, revered by Haiti’s poor for his courage in opposing the brutal dictatorships of the 1980s and his eloquent, inspiring rhetoric of equality for the downtrodden masses.  As a result, he twice won the presidency (in 1990 and 2000) with overwhelming majorities in free elections. However, Aristide’s high-profile waste of state resources, refusal to compromise on issues such as the 2000 parliamentary election dispute, tolerance of corruption at the highest levels, and policy of impunity for his own political supporters quickly eroded his support ? first among the middle class, and then among the his core constituency of the poor.

Following longstanding Haitian tradition, Aristide opted to use informal networks of supporters to perform important State functions such as customs collection and security, thus giving rise to the notorious “chimeres” – young, unemployed urban males who lived off the crumbs of government patronage and frequently attacked political opponents. Aristide’s refusal to build apolitical State institutions eventually came back to haunt him.

In February 2004, faced with a tiny but relatively disciplined armed rebellion, Aristide’s underpaid and unmotivated police force shed their uniforms and fled at the slightest hint of trouble, allowing the rebels to take town after town with little or no resistance. Thus, the defense of the administration was left in the hands of the disorganized chimeres – who were no match for the few dozen members of the dismantled Haitian army and its death squads who took the second largest city of Cap Haitian in broad daylight within hours.

With the rebels in control of northern Haiti and advancing on the capital, Aristide found himself presiding over nothing but chaos. He hastily agreed to a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) power-sharing plan that aimed to keep him in office for the remaining two years of his five-year term ? albeit as little more than a figurehead ? and appealed for international peacekeepers to shore up his regime. Following the political opposition’s refusal of the CARICOM proposal and Port-au-Prince’s descent into a violent free-for-all, the Bush administration abandoned Aristide, pointedly telling him that it could not ensure his security. Aristide then wrote a hasty resignation letter and was whisked into exile, making his swift and spectacular demise official.

U.S. Mistakes

Inadequate Crisis Response

Unfortunately, the response of the United States to Aristide’s myriad mistakes only compounded Haiti’s problems. First, after the U.S. intervention in 1994 to reverse the military coup of 1991 and reinstall Aristide, the interests of policy makers and the public quickly shifted to places like Bosnia and Kosovo, and ultimately to al-Qaida and Iraq. Thus, the United States left Haiti without the resources and supervision necessary for the long-term task of constructing more inclusive political and economic systems.

Second, the United States poorly handled the controversy over the 2000 parliamentary elections. In an election where over 3,000 seats were contested, Organization of American States (OAS) observers deemed the process a success, with the sole exception of the bizarre counting method used to determine eight senate seats.  Those seats gave candidates of Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, a first round victory and avoided a runoff.  The U.S. response to this issue was to block hundreds of millions of dollars in pre-approved loans earmarked for projects such as desperately needed roads and potable water.

When the senators vacated the seats in question, the United States moved the goalposts and insisted on a settlement with Haiti’s political opposition.  This move effectively granted veto power to a diverse group of parties that have historically lacked credibility and popular support but have excelled at obstruction. This policy continued through the recent crisis when the United States failed to put adequate pressure on the opposition to accept a negotiated solution. In fact, by rejecting the CARICOM proposal while the rebels were advancing on the capital, the opposition got exactly what it had always clamored for but could never achieve on its own ? the early departure of the elected president.

Third, the United States should have intervened more effectively in the February 2004 uprising. The Bush administration, which had deferred to CARICOM and the OAS during much of the crisis, inserted itself into the negotiation process at the last minute and with little consultation, alienating many of its Caribbean neighbors. P.J Patterson, Prime Minister of Jamaica and acting CARICOM head, said that the circumstances surrounding Aristide’s departure set a dangerous precedent for regional democracy and were murky enough to warrant a U.N. investigation. Consequently, CARICOM excluded Gerard Latortue, the new Haitian Prime Minister, from its March summit, and Patterson chose to welcome the exiled Aristide to Jamaica despite strong U.S. protests. The United States could have avoided a souring of U.S.-Caribbean relations and painted itself as a more neutral player had it thrown more of its weight, both publicly and privately, behind the collaborative hemispheric approach.

Too Little, Too Late

Most disturbing is how the United States handled the rebels and the security situation in Haiti following Aristide’s departure. The United States was the first to know that Aristide had left the country, but the last to fill the power vacuum. This slow-footedness resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of pillaging and looting in the capital. It also allowed the rebels to march unimpeded to Port-au-Prince, where rebel leader Guy Philippe declared, “I am the military chief. The country is in my hands.” Philippe then embarked on a national “listening tour,” during which his entourage killed at least two people they mistook for Aristide supporters.

The United States also failed to ensure a sufficient number of international troops on the ground. At the outset, only 1,600 troops replaced Haiti’s notoriously understaffed police force of 5,000. Almost a month passed before there were enough troops to deploy outside the capital, leaving most of the country without a security presence in the interim.  The current number of 3,700 troops remains far from adequate, yet there are no plans to finance or provide additional forces. Some Haitians are taking advantage of the resulting lawlessness to pursue personal agendas, from exacting political revenge to settling scores. Members of Lavalas are in hiding. Mob executions of suspected thieves have become commonplace. Former officers of the defunct army are returning to the country, assuming police powers in several towns and advocating the return of the historically repressive force.

Furthermore, the U.S. military has flip-flopped on whether disarmament is a part of its mandate, resulting in little action. The fact that the United States roundly criticized Aristide’s recalcitrance to control his own violent supporters makes the administration’s mixed signals on neutralizing the rebels and arresting known criminals only that much more shameful.

Next Steps

More Troops and Thorough Disarmament

The immediate objective of U.S. intervention must be to establish enough security to allow Haitians to participate in economic, social and political activities without fear. Thus, the United States should immediately increase the number of troops to ensure a nationwide presence. In addition, the U.S. military should conduct joint patrols with the Haitian police to counter the image of the Americans as occupiers and provide the local police with valuable training from more experienced forces.

Equally important to establishing a climate of security is capturing the criminals who continue to come out of the woodwork. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have published lists of the human rights violators and convicted criminals roaming free as a result of the rebel campaign. The United States should offer intelligence and manpower to arrest criminals and human rights abusers from both ends of the political spectrum in return for the Haitian government’s disowning of the rebels.  This step would signal that the United States and the Latortue government are not taking sides in the long-running political dispute, but rather are seeking to rule in an even-handed way for the first time in Haiti’s history.

Promoting Elections, Not Candidates

In the medium-term, the United States has an interest in seeing that free elections are held as soon as reasonably possible. The mandate of several thousand local officials ends in July, and parliamentary elections scheduled for late 2003 have been postponed indefinitely, leaving Haiti without the legislative body needed to approve government loans and international agreements. The “Wise Council” serving as the executive branch watchdog should be replaced with elected representatives as soon as possible to allow popular participation in public affairs, the true basis of any democracy.

The OAS and UN have experience in Haiti and are well placed to divide up the technical tasks associated with holding elections. For the first time in 50 years, there is no dominant force on the Haitian political scene, and the United States has an opportunity to be perceived as favoring the democratic process rather than a particular party or candidate. U.S. contributions to the electoral process in Haiti could include funding for UN and OAS activities, and working with local police to ensure security throughout the electoral period. Security is essential because new leaders will emerge only if they feel safe from threats and violence. By helping in these ways, the United States can assist in offering voters true choices free from intimidation.

Rethinking Nation-Building

Nation-building requires a long-term investment. Too often U.S. attention is diverted by the crisis of the day, and yesterday’s favored child quickly becomes today’s orphan. Changing the deeply rooted, dysfunctional economic and social systems of countries like Haiti requires extensive time and well-spent, adequate funding, which an impatient American public must support.

With multinational reconstruction efforts now underway not only in Haiti but in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Iraq, nation-building has become a mainstay of post-cold war geopolitics. While stressing that the military should be used only to fight wars, candidate Bush dismissed the idea of a “nation-building corps.”  His approach leaves us ill-prepared to perform the important work following military operations in places like Haiti. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, seemed to agree when he said, “It is wrong to think of Haiti as primarily a military problem. This is work that could be done by well-trained police forces.” In fact, much of the non-combat work that the U.S. military has undertaken in Haiti could be completed by other entities that are trained specifically for these tasks.

Sharing the responsibilities and risks with international partners reduces the burdens and tensions that often result from unilateral U.S. intervention. One possible solution to the challenge of nation-building is a permanent U.N. force with units for policing, infrastructure-building, tax collection, education and other essential state functions. This force could serve an active, supervisory or advisory role depending on the strength of the local bureaucracy. In all cases, the emphasis of any such force must be on empowering the local population to assume these functions as soon as possible.

Lastly, Aristide enjoys the singular distinction of having been repatriated by the United States as a democratic hero and expatriated less than 10 years later as a failed president. As more and more countries experiment with democracy, the international community must reflect on how best to offer elected leaders incentives to respond to the needs of their citizens. Failure to adequately address this issue will likely result in repeated interventions in other developing democracies, interventions which result from the failures of wealthy nations as much as the failures of poorer ones.

Edward Keane has worked and traveled extensively in Haiti, and has written on Haitian politics, culture and the environment.Center for American Progres