Originally: Haiti’s Crisis Bears Little Resemblance to ‘Standard’ Rebellions


WASHINGTON — The first week of January 1959, Fidel Castro and his “barbudos” marched across Cuba triumphantly, taking Havana within days and transforming Cuba for all time. Despite all the revolution’s failures since then, that seminal movement still stands as the classic modern model of revolution for the Caribbean and Latin America.
At first, it might have seemed that it was happening again in Haiti this last week.

A small rebellion of obscure forces began in the northern city of Gonaives and spread to town after town, eliciting headlines such as, “Police Stations Attacked as Armed Rebellion Spreads.” It was easy to draw comparisons to earlier revolutions in the hemisphere and to predict that Haiti was about to go the way of Cuba, or even of Mexico or Bolivia.

But what we saw in Haiti this week foretells danger for the entire hemisphere, unless there is unusually intelligent outside intervention. Events in Haiti today are more in line with total breakdown than with revolution.

There’s a real opposition in Haiti, but those courageous civilians have no military power whatsoever. The armed forces that suddenly arose in Gonaives, St.-Marc, Grand-Goave and even Cap-Haitien were not revolutionaries at all, but disgruntled former military officers and brutal street thugs who once called themselves The Cannibal Army. You get the idea.

About here, you are right to ask: Didn’t we invade there, TOO? Don’t I remember that — wasn’t it about 1994? — we sent Marines and other American soldiers there to restore a democratic president? Didn’t we disband the army? Didn’t our justice department train a modern police force? And didn’t we have an embargo against Haiti at one point to drive the military out?

As a matter of fact, you are right. Haiti today is one of those “studies in ambiguity” in geopolitics that we’ve seen in the Middle East, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Africa — but not, until now, on our own doorstep.

From the very beginning, it was clear that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Silesian priest with the bright eyes and deceptive manner, with the inner anti-Americanism and emotional pathologies, was going to be a problem. But he had been (magical words) “democratically elected” in 1991 before being thrown out by the military; in American development diplomacy of the 1980s and ’90s, it was “good” to restore a “democrat,” almost at any cost.

Aristide, as president, immediately opted for total power; he got rid of his respected colleagues, and drove out the American-trained police and replaced them with old-style Haitian street thugs. Soon he was “protected” not by Haitians but by several handfuls of American paramilitaries from a foundation in San Francisco at the cost of $9 million a year. He has his own $30 million private helicopter.

By last week, when President Aristide made a rare appearance on American television, he had the slightly otherworldly, voodoo-touched look of the crazy former Haitian dictator of the 1960s, Papa Doc. All Aristide could say, repeatedly, was, “We are building a state of law, we are building a state of law …”

The economic part of the Haitian disaster was laid down in 1991, all with the best of intentions, by the first Bush administration and carried through well into the Clinton administration. The U.S. and other countries had imposed a severe embargo upon Haiti. This had the not unexpected effect of 1) turning the military to smuggling, their first love anyway, and 2) utterly and tragically destroying the small businesses of Haiti.

“In the 1980s, we were planting up to 10 million trees a year in reforestation,” the ambassador to Haiti in that era, Ernest Preeg, reminisced sadly with me this week. “We had an anti-malaria program, secondary road programs and a brand-new container port. Haiti made textiles, footwear, toys and baseballs. Three years of the embargo destroyed all the job-creating programs, and then Aristide destroyed the rest.

“After that, most of the aid went strictly to ‘democracy projects.’ In short, we took everything away from the long-term; we sacrificed the long-term for the short.”

One might say that by focusing on the mechanisms and forms of democracy — “Aristide was elected and that is good” — we pulled out from all of the substance that makes a democracy work, leaving only an empty political shell.

As of this writing, the United States is reportedly preparing space in Guantanamo for potential flows of Haitian refugees (remember, Jeb Bush is governor of Florida), and the American administration is waffling about what, if anything, to do.

Another of our most experienced diplomats from years of work in the Caribbean and Central America, Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, outlined to me this week what could reasonably be done: “We’ve reached the stage where simple solutions are no longer possible because the guys with the guns will take over. What we need now is a movement at the foreign minister level of the OAS (the Organization of American States), where they come to the conclusion that time is running out, appeal to the opposition to come together in a transition, negotiate with Aristide to leave, bring in peacemakers from the Caribbean or someplace and begin a transition.”

Whether this is possible, or whether it will be tried, is anyone’s guess, particularly with Washington obsessively focusing on faraway Iraq. But this tragic case study, like so many others, shows us that “democratization” alone is not enough. Isolating a pitifully poor economy such as Haiti’s was lunacy; the development process anywhere must be waged on many complex levels.

Meanwhile, this gathering Haitian rebellion looks little like the old revolutions in the Caribbean and Latin America, with their clear demarcation between dictator and revolutionary, between past and future, between constructive and destructive American support. Some members of Aristide’s Lavalas party have already threatened to destroy the rich monuments of Haiti if they are thrown out. This is Taliban stuff.