Analysis: US policy in Haiti and the task of nation building [DP]

March 2, 2004

MELISSA BLOCK, host: In its 200-year history, Haiti’s gone through 32 coups and now the ouster of its first democratically elected president. Many experts on Haiti argue that because the US was instrumental in bringing about the departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Washington must now help pick up the pieces. But as NPR’s Michele Kelemen reports, Americans who’ve been involved in Haiti policy say nation building will be a huge task.


When the US last intervened in Haiti, it led 20,000 troops to restore Aristide to power after a coup. Secretary of State Colin Powell often reminds reporters that he went to Haiti in 1994 along with former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Sam Nunn to persuade the generals to get out and allow Aristide back in.

Secretary COLIN POWELL (Department of State): I have watched over the last 10 years through his first administration, through the interim administration which he had a lot to do with controlling, and then his coming back into office. And I saw a man who was democratically elected, but he did not democratically govern or govern well. And now we are there to give the Haitian people another chance.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration seems to think it can restore order quickly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has spoken of a short mission for up to 2,000 US Marines. But Americans who have tried their hands at nation building in Haiti, like former Ambassador Tim Carney, say there are lessons to be learned from the Clinton years.

Former Ambassador TIM CARNEY (Former US Ambassador to Haiti): The thing about Haiti is, the lessons we’ve learned have got to be pretty stark at this point. And the most important one is that we have to stick with it.

KELEMEN: Though Clinton-era officials say they invested a lot of time and manpower on Haiti when Aristide returned, critics say it was not enough. And when the US grew disillusioned by him, Washington lost interest. Carney says US policy was overly personalized.

Mr. CARNEY: We basically put way too much hope in Aristide as something new and revolutionary in Haitian leadership. In fact, he was a small evolutionary step on the normal predatory Haitian ruler.

KELEMEN: But Rick Barton, who worked on local governance issues there, says there was another problem. Aristide was trying to run a government that never really existed.

Mr. RICH BARTON (Center for Strategic & International Studies): The core problems in Haiti continue to be the core problems. Essentially, we’ve inherited a slave-holder system. Even though they Haitians chased the French out in the early 1800s, that model never really changed. And so the system of intimidation has really been the operative political model.

KELEMEN: Critics of the Bush administration say Washington must share a good deal of the blame for Haiti’s failings in recent years. The United States was among the international donors that froze aid to Haiti in 2000 after Aristide’s party swept to victory in flawed legislative elections. Now Barton of the Center for Strategic & International Studies says there’s a need for a sustained economic aid program to bring Haiti out of poverty.

Mr. BARTON: The total exploitation of the country has left it with virtually no topsoil. And that’s really a pretty good metaphor for what’s happened to the island through its history.

KELEMEN: He says one of the immediate challenges for the Bush administration is to help organize a caretaker government that strikes a balance between Aristide supporters and opposition figures. David Rothkopf also zeroes in on the politics.

Mr. DAVID ROTHKOPF (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): The first lesson is you can’t build an economic house on a political sinkhole.

KELEMEN: He was President Clinton’s economic recovery coordinator for Haiti in the 1990s and is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. ROTHKOPF: In Haiti’s case, what they need more than a successor to Aristide is one good election. And the only thing they need more than one good election is a second good election so people start believing that the process is working for them.

KELEMEN: But Rothkopf admits the US has a poor history of nation building. And, as he put it, Haiti is not going to show up in the political calculus as much as Afghanistan and Iraq. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.