Originally: `Freeing’ Haiti: A Cautionary Tale


Score one for Lawrence A. Pezzullo.

His government was preparing to dispatch thousands of heavily armed troops to liberate the long-suffering people of an impoverished foreign dictatorship ? but the U.S. diplomat was convinced that it would not work.

“We are heading down a path toward unilateral military intervention,” he warned. “Only a sophist could propose `restoring democracy’ at the point of a gun in a country with no experience in participatory democracy.”

But that was precisely what Washington proceeded to do, and Pezzullo called it right.

He could have been talking about Iraq, where U.S. and British forces are even now shooting their way across the desert in the direction of Baghdad, intent on toppling a dictator (who may or may not be alive) and liberating a people (who may or may not want to be liberated).

But Pezzullo was not talking about Iraq. Instead, the foreign-service officer was lamenting the prospects that faced a small, benighted country in a very different part of the world.

When Pezzullo saw that his government was going to send in the muscle, come what may ? 21,000 troops in all ? he tendered his resignation as special adviser to U.S. president Bill Clinton.

A few months later, in October, 1994, the U.S. military invaded a small, claw-shaped Caribbean land called Haiti and quickly occupied the entire country without firing a shot. The Americans were supported in their efforts by several hundred Canadian troops.

At the time, hopes for Haiti were almost impossibly high, but it has been a long, downward slide since then.

The country’s unhappy trajectory after being invaded by guns and good intentions nearly nine years ago provides a stark cautionary tale for anyone who might be wondering what Iraqis can expect when ? and if ? they no longer have Saddam Hussein to kick them around.

“Haiti continues to be very discouraging,” says Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based watchdog agency. “You have a very high level of political violence combined with almost total impunity for those responsible.”

U.S. President George W. Bush has offered various arguments to justify the Iraq invasion ? and those arguments have varied from time to time ? but they always include a stated desire to liberate Iraq’s 23 million people from tyranny, followed by the establishment of a representative, democratic government in a land that has known only dictators.

These two goals are almost exactly what Clinton said he hoped to achieve when he sent his country’s troops into Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Democracy at the point of a gun ? nice work, if you can get it.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked in Haiti, a country that is much smaller geographically than Iraq, much weaker economically, much less populous and much, much closer to the United States’ shores.

What does any of this augur for Baghdad?

If Haiti’s experience is anything to go by, the prospects for an early blossoming of democracy’s frail flower in Iraq’s parched soil seem more than a little grim.

Haiti’s 8.3 million people totter on the brink of civil war, with a sitting president whose election two years ago is almost universally acknowledged to have been blotted by fraud. Anger, hatred and guns have replaced political debate. The rule of law has largely collapsed, if it ever existed. Insecurity reigns.

“The entire judicial system, and the independence of the judicial system from the political system, this is a major problem,” says Anne Sainte-Marie of Amnesty International in Montreal. “The question of freedom of expression is deteriorating incredibly.”

Haitians remain abysmally poor, with roughly three-quarters of them trapped in absolute poverty, without jobs or prospects of any kind. Almost all Haitians continue to be threatened by armed goons who swagger about on every side, many of them wearing the uniform of the Canadian-trained Police National d’Haiti.

Meanwhile, the country is harder hit by AIDS than any other in the western hemisphere, and it remains an environmental disaster zone. Over the past 12 years, Haiti’s dwindling forest cover has continued to go up in smoke, shrinking from 31,400 hectares to about 11,600 hectares. The already-depleted topsoil is blowing away. The rain is ceasing to fall.

“Where Haiti differs from Iraq is, Haiti doesn’t have the natural resources,” says Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Americas. “It has none of the advantages economically.”

And yet the relaunch of Haiti on a hoped-for voyage of tranquility began amid exuberance and optimism. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians cheered, and foreign pundits applauded, on Oct. 14, 1994, when the rightful president of the country ? a defrocked Salesian priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide ? was restored to office, four years after having been selected for the job in the first free and fair elections in nearly 200 years of his country’s history and three years after he was overthrown by an army coup.

The military strongman who helped depose him ? Lt.-General Raoul Cedras ? had already fled, bribed into exile by U.S. cash and conveyed to Panama aboard a U.S. chartered plane, an arrangement that set a pattern of impunity for Haitian murderers that continues to this day.

Aristide’s restoration to power was heralded as a foreign-policy triumph for Clinton and was celebrated as a victory for the ordinary people of a country ruled since independence in 1804 by a rogue’s gallery of tyrants, thugs and thieves, including the 29-year dynasty of the reviled Duvalier clan ? Papa Doc, followed by Baby Doc ? who ran the country as a sort of private fiefdom from 1957 until 1986.

A firebrand populist, Aristide was no one’s idea of a consensus builder.

His election in 1990 was received with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm in Washington, and his ouster by the Haitian military short months later provoked neither tears nor much in the way of a protest.

“Most of the people who pulled off the coup were tied to the U.S.,” says Brody.

But in 1994, with a new Democratic president in the Oval Office, the decision was made to restore Aristide to the shiny white presidential palace in Port-au-Prince ? at the point of gun, if necessary.

That part proved easy. The task of rebuilding the blasted country and its gutted institutions promised to be more difficult, but it began almost immediately, with considerable international assistance. Canada devoted much of its attention and expertise to the formation and training of a professional police force, something Haitians had never previously enjoyed ? and something they do not enjoy today. Sadly, in Haiti, there are more than enough despots and bully boys to go around. And around.

“Countries are notorious for having their own histories,” says Brody, “and it’s very difficult for outsiders to dictate.”

Many in 1994 thought Aristide could build a bridge to the country’s mostly light-skinned elite, a group that has long enjoyed immense wealth, privilege and power just a bone’s toss from the most thudding poverty imaginable, which was where the president’s popularity resided ? among the lepers, the hopeless, the hungry.

Some bridge.

Barred by the constitution from seeking a second consecutive term, Aristide withdrew to the sidelines in 1995 but continued to govern for the following five years through a frontman named René Préval. In November, 2000 ? now dogged by allegations of corruption and thuggery ? Aristide ran for the presidency once again and won, while his political movement, known as Fanmi Lavalas (Haitian creole for Avalanche Family), regained control of both houses of parliament.

But the vote was badly tainted by fraud and sharpening hostilities between Aristide and his political foes began to draw blood.

“It was really blatant,” Mariner says of the irregularities. “The election definitely exacerbated the split.”

Since last November, the split has turned lethal, with regular street demonstrations and violent disturbances. At least four people have died in the recent fray and more than 350 have been wounded.

In protest against the rigged elections, donor agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are currently withholding roughly $500 million (U.S.) in grants and loans ? an amount equivalent to the government’s annual budget.

Aristide’s current term doesn’t end until 2006, but no one believes Haiti’s furies can be held in check that long. Private armies of gun-toting hoodlums have been raised on all sides. Journalists have been harassed, beaten, killed. A descent into even greater chaos and bloodshed, perhaps outright civil war, seems more than likely ? unless something gives.

Lately, the Organization of American States has been frantically trying to broker a deal that might prevent a new Haitian catastrophe.

A week ago, a high-level OAS delegation delivered an ultimatum to Aristide and his opponents, who have until today to agree on the makeup of an independent national elections council that is to oversee a new vote, one that the OAS insists must be held this year.

“Things could be much improved in Haiti,” says Julian Hunte, a master of understatement who is the foreign minister of St. Lucia and co-chair of the OAS delegation that visited Port-au-Prince.

“On this last occasion, I did get the feeling that both parties understand that this really is the last chance for them to put their heads together and make the whole thing work.”

But no one is very optimistic that peace and democracy are now Haiti’s for the asking, any more than they were when the American ? and Canadian ? armed forces came to call.

So pray for Haiti, and score one for Lawrence Pezzullo, who questioned the invasion even before it began, warning that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to impose democracy at the point of a gun, particularly in countries that have never known representative rule.

Countries like Haiti.

Or Iraq.