Originally: Road to Democracy in Haiti Hits an Impasse

Haiti is stymied by a political stalemate and reduced foreign aid. Critics blame President Aristide and his chokehold on power.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It’s known to most Haitians as the American Highway, but Route Neuf might better be called the Road Not Taken.

Its few miles of pavement are cratered and plagued by bandits, and the asphalt peters out altogether as the road evaporates before it reaches Cite Soleil, a slum where tens of thousands of people live in squalor.

Construction of what was supposed to be a vital modern link began after Washington’s 1994 military intervention and ended two years later along with other efforts to build democracy in this, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Route Neuf, or New Road in Creole, has become a symbol of the abandoned U.S. effort to wrest Haiti from 200 years of despotism and dashed expectations.

“I’m not going to sit here and say that we didn’t make mistakes,” said U.S. Ambassador Brian Dean Curran, a Clinton appointee who will be replaced next month. “But part of it is that Haiti is a very difficult place to understand. Not everything flowed naturally from that restoration of constitutional democracy.”

Paralyzed by political stalemate and reduced foreign aid, Haiti has fallen even further behind its Latin American neighbors in the eight years since exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was reinstalled with U.S. help. Per capita income has been halved. Malnutrition afflicts two-thirds of the 8.3 million people, of whom 55% are illiterate. The national currency, the gourde, has lost half its value and foreign investment has disappeared, even with a labor force eager to work for sweatshop wages.

Critics put the blame for Haiti’s worsening condition on Aristide and his chokehold on power. A former priest, Aristide mobilized the poorest of the poor against the previous dictatorship, but his current opponents describe him as Machiavellian and a master at exploiting Haitian racial and economic resentment.

“The United States will have to come back to Haiti to get rid of Aristide, because they are the ones who brought him here,” said Maurice Lafortune, head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “They thought they were bringing democracy to Haiti, but they were wrong and they, too, realize that now.”

With Washington’s diplomatic energies concentrated on Iraq and the Middle East, Haiti and Latin America in general have fallen off the U.S. foreign policy map, complain both the Haitian government and its opponents. But the increasing number of Haitian refugees taking to the seas may force a change, especially as the U.S. elections approach. Haitian Americans and the Congressional Black Caucus have accused the Bush administration of racism in its treatment of asylum-seekers from Haiti, who are returned without hearings. Cubans, by contrast, are allowed to stay if they reach U.S. soil.

“Haiti is not a communist country and it’s not a terrorism threat to the United States,” said biology professor Micha Gaillard, an activist with the opposition movement Democratic Convergence. “Our only hope is to somehow become a nuisance.”

Opposition politicians say they have to do more than pose a threat of diplomatic annoyance.

“Unless we in Haiti are able to show a certain level of unity and resolve, this crisis will last quite a while longer,” said Andre Apaid. He is a businessman from one of the country’s most powerful families and a key supporter of the Civil Society, a coalition of 184 professional, religious and social groups opposed to Aristide. Referring to the wealthy elite, intellectuals, the Catholic Church hierarchy, labor and human rights organizations, he noted that “people who used to be mad at each other are talking now.”

Such advocates saw a glimmer of renewed U.S. interest in Haiti this month when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meeting with counterparts from the Organization of American States at a summit in Chile called on Aristide to clear the way for elections.

Powell gave Aristide until Sept. 30 to clean up the security forces so that opposition parties can campaign without fear of the chimeres, the armed gangs who take their name from mythical fire-breathing monsters and who terrorize those seen as a threat to Aristide’s rule. Many of the thugs are holdovers from the Tontons Macoutes, the terror squad that helped keep the Duvalier dictatorship in power for 29 years before Aristide.

No one expects a vote even as soon as next year. Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party activists blame the opposition for holding up new elections with what they consider exaggerated claims that insecurity prevents fair campaigning. Lavalas dismissed as wrong, or irrelevant, reports that thugs within the national police force have beaten opponents, shot into crowds at rallies and killed independent journalists.

“The Americans have their own political agenda and are trying to weaken the Lavalas party so the opposition can win,” party spokesman Mario Dupuy said, echoing the anti-American sentiment that pervades the Aristide leadership. Held in awe by the poor, Aristide has turned them against the United States by casting the democratic reforms laid out by Washington and the OAS as pressure by capitalist poachers for a Haitian national sellout.

Aristide was never Washington’s preference for leading this country after three decades of dictatorship under Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son and successor, Jean-Claude, who has been living in France since his 1986 ouster. The administration of the first President Bush openly backed former World Bank official Marc Bazin in the 1990 election won by Aristide with a 67% landslide.

Aristide was deposed seven months later by a military coup backed by some of Haiti’s most powerful families, who were in turn closely aligned with U.S. intelligence forces. Returning Aristide to power, armed with an agenda of political reforms, was seen at the time as the best way to restore constitutional order and turn back the tide of refugees storming Florida’s shores.

A short-term peacekeeping force followed the U.S. intervention, as did an aid plan aimed at repairing the collapsed national infrastructure with projects like Route Neuf. But the American Highway ran out of political steam and funding as it approached Cite Soleil, a slum so densely populated that thousands of shanties would have to have been destroyed or residents relocated.

One U.S. official here, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Aristide contributed to the failure of the project by dragging his feet on relocations and presenting the road as an imperialist disruption.

About the time the half- finished highway hit the Cite Soleil roadblock in 1996, Republicans had gained the upper hand in Congress and forced a cutoff of U.S. aid to Haiti as a form of political censure. The Clinton administration, embarrassed by the diplomatic debacle following intervention, dropped the road project along with the rest of its attention to Haiti.

Disputed elections that gave the Lavalas party unfettered control over the country in May 2000 spurred fresh efforts by the OAS to intervene in the political impasse. More recently, musings by Aristide supporters about possibly amending the constitution to allow him to seek another term have jolted Latin American policymakers in Washington to rethink their hands-off approach.

“They’re of two minds on what to do with Haiti,” James Morrell, head of the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington, said of the current Bush administration.

“There are some who feel like let’s go with what we’ve got, while others have come to the realization that that could lead to further instability. They are oscillating between those two positions.”

Some U.S. officials have accused Aristide of deceiving American backers to get U.S. diplomatic and military muscle behind him just long enough for him to reinforce his populist posturing, disband the Haitian army and create a national police force with the primary task of ensuring that he stays in power.

Roger Noriega, the designated assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in his capacity as OAS ambassador late last year that Washington’s opportunity to build democracy in Haiti through collaboration with Aristide had been “absolutely squandered.” Haitian economist and businessman Hans Tippenhauer accused Washington of having handed Aristide “a blank check” and then turning a blind eye when he went back on promises to build a foundation for democracy.

“The Americans didn’t understand that he wasn’t going to be a team player, and Aristide didn’t understand that he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference,” Tippenhauer said.

He sees little near-term hope of resolving what he calls a Catch-22 situation, with no chance of elections while Aristide is at the helm and no peaceful means of getting rid of him without elections.

Some moves are underway to get funding for development projects, as donor states realize that withholding loans reinforces propaganda that the international community is out to harm Haitians.

At the Inter-American Development Bank office here, regional representative Gerard Johnson explains that Haiti suffered “a macroeconomic meltdown” last fall, just as international sentiment was changing toward easing the financial embargo. Haiti ceased paying the interest on its existing foreign debts three years ago, and the back-to-back crises have left it unable to pay the arrears, so it is ineligible for new credits.

Johnson doubts any of the frozen loans, which amount to less than $200 million, will be forthcoming soon because Aristide has portrayed meeting the conditions as moral capitulation.

“Aristide has said to me that ‘poverty is how we guarantee our freedom today.’ He will join in combating suffering but not poverty,” recalled the nonplused banker.

“How can you address development needs when poverty is equated with freedom?”