On Thursday, Haiti celebrated its bicentennial, the fruit of what was arguably the most radical revolution of the 18th century. Determined that they would no longer put up with white supremacy, black slaves rose up and defeated Napoleon’s army.
The revolution symbolized the Haitian quest for liberty and solidarity, but the repressive despotism of colonialism and the violence of the struggle for emancipation left the country with a troubled legacy. Haiti inherited the wounds of racial and class enmity and confronted the hostility of slave-holding powers, including the United States. The country also had to face the material ruin that resulted from the bloody struggle for emancipation.
These conditions have shaped Haiti‘s history, which has been defined by long periods of authoritarianism interrupted by failed attempts at democracy. The paradox of the Haitian revolution is that it was fought in the name of liberty and equality and yet the country has experienced little of either.
The fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and the unending transition to democracy that ensued have not changed this reality. In fact, under the current government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti is navigating between the Scylla of a paralyzing crisis and the Charybdis of putschism and chaos. Given the balance of forces both internally and externally, it is unlikely that the growing opposition to Mr. Aristide will displace him from power. While the president’s challengers have been emboldened by their capacity to mobilize significant segments of the population against his rule, they have not succeeded in forcing his resignation. Mr. Aristide has shown that he can survive via a mixture of repressive and cajoling policies. He may have lost whatever legitimacy he had with the intellectual and business elites, but he has retained a hold on the very poor.
Faced with the vicissitudes of the Iraqi occupation and an election year, it is unlikely that the Bush administration can stomach another attempt at nation building. For its part, the international community has shown little capacity to move Haiti‘s factions toward a workable compromise.
At the moment there seem to be only two options: an uneasy truce between President Aristide and the two main opposition coalitions, Democratic Convergence and Group 184, or a continued descent into hell. Such a compromise would require the organization of a transitional government and new elections in a climate free of fear and intimidation. The formation of a transitional government would hinge on Mr. Aristide’s willingness to share power with a prime minister from the opposition and the readiness of his foes to accept his continued presidency.
Yet the odds of this happening are long. The challengers have an interest in continuing the crisis because it erodes the president’s legitimacy. For Mr. Aristide’s party, Lavalas, a deal is likely to generate internecine struggles since many of its constituents will have to share power with adversaries. Moreover, Lavalas’s dependence on armed thugs has caused fears about Mr. Aristide’s ultimate reliability.
Still, a compromise is the only path toward stability. The international community, including the United States, should press for the immediate creation of a transitional government of national unity that will hold elections within a year of its formation ? and back that request with financial incentives. It should also provide logistical and financial assistance to disarm gangs, organize elections and set the economy on the road to recovery.
External forces cannot, however, resolve Haiti‘s problems. Haitians themselves have to find new means to extricate themselves from their own predicament. They did so after the collapse of the Duvalier family’s dictatorship, when in the midst of a series of coups they created a popular movement giving birth to Lavalas. Lavalas’s ultimate failure has shown the difficulties facing any radical restructuring of society, but it has provided lessons to a new generation of Haitians. The full awakening of this generation is the harbinger of hope, but 2004, the year of Haiti‘s bicentennial, is likely to offer only great uncertainties.
Robert Fatton Jr., professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is author of “Haiti‘s Predatory Republic.”