William Raspberry

A call for U.S. action in Haiti

February 16, 2004

WASHINGTON — What should the United States do about Haiti? That Caribbean country, already the poorest in the Americas, is — again — on a mad dash to chaos. As of this writing, at least 47 people had been killed in violent demonstrations against the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and it was generally acknowledged that the majority of the protesters had voted for Aristide.

Government forces managed to forestall a major demonstration set for last week by erecting huge blazing barricades. But rebels remained in control of some eight towns, including Gonaives — significantly, the starting place for the 1985 uprising that led to the ouster of the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

The government’s police force is ill-trained and poorly equipped, and there is no army because Aristide disbanded it for deposing him in 1991. He returned to Haiti from his American exile in 1994 with the aid of about 20,000 American troops, finished his term, then claimed victory in a re-election widely seen as corrupt.

Doing nothing, the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy told me, is not an option. The president of the National Black Leadership Roundtable in Washington pointed out that the hordes of refugees certain to be headed for American shores may be the least of it.

The corruption and instability of the island, he said, have encouraged organized crime, and Haiti now looms as a major trans-shipment point for illegal drugs bound for the United States and elsewhere. Unless the chaos can be headed off, he warned, Haiti’s problems will become the problems of the Americas.

What can we do? A refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba could handle 15,000-20,000 refugees, said a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command Headquarters last week, outlining one short-term option. Or we could send the refugees back to Haiti, the moral equivalent of capturing people fleeing a blazing building and returning them to the fire.

And for the longer term? For several years now, Fauntroy has been advocating that America take eight specific steps, most of them dealing with ways of forcing the Haitian government to negotiate its way toward true democracy and strengthening a fledgling civil-society movement in the country. He has urged the United States to move against drug trafficking, to revoke visas and make arrests, and he has urged support for those groups — amazingly still operating in Haiti — who call for vastly increased transparency and accountability among Haiti’s leadership.

Unhappily, he says, we may have come to the time for his eighth step: establishing Aristide in comfortable exile.

“I used to believe that Aristide, being a priest and a man of God, would avoid the temptations of greed and power and violence,” said Fauntroy, himself a Baptist minister and a disciple of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “My great disappointment is his willingness to use violence as a tool of intimidation and repression. We have a particular interest, because a Haitian society in disarray becomes prey to all the forces that destabilize us here in America. We can’t just stand and watch.

“In 1986, where there was a similar situation of crime and corruption and violence, we essentially offered Duvalier a nonviolent transfer to one of his villas in France, letting him take with him whom he would, and enough money to take care of him for the rest of his life.

“Perhaps it’s time we made a similar offer to Aristide. That, of course, won’t solve Haiti’s problems. But it might make a solution possible.”