Inter-American Dialogue. Forum on prospects for new Haitian government. April 9, 2004.

Prof. Robert Fatton, University of Virginia

Mary Ellen Gilroy, State Department

Prof. Robert Maguire, Trinity College Haiti program

Jocelyn McCalla, National Coalition for Haitian Rights

James Morrell, Haiti Democracy Project

Except for the remarks by the Haiti Democracy Project, the overall tenor of this forum, both from other presenters and the audience, ranged from noncommittal to dismissive of the interim Latortue administration in Haiti. Morrell in his presentation urged support for this technocratic regime as the best alternative to either unstable personalistic rule or foreign trusteeship. He saw positive elements in Latortue’s handling of Jamaica and stroking of the rebel forces that hold de facto power in the majority of the country.

His remarks below are not verbatim, just the gist.

Morrell thanked Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue for introducing him as the one who sat to his left. Morrell considered that he felt very comfortable in that position. (Laughter.)

He stressed the importance of the sea change that came over public opinion in Haiti over the past two years as a result of the deterioration under Aristide. He recalled the poll results cited at a previous session of the Inter-American Dialogue: support for Aristide erodes from a slim majority in May 2001 to single digits by November 2002. This only accelerated during 2003.

Something approaching a consensus developed among the Haitians, especially after the invasion of the university on December 5, 2003, that Aristide had to go. It was this broad sentiment for democratic change that provided the underpinnings of legitimacy for the interim Latortue administration.

This mood change among the Haitians was the larger factor that determined both the success of the Group of 184, as measured by its large and persistent street demonstrations, and the ever-more-frequent defections among the ranks of Aristide henchmen. Although large, the demonstrations of the Group of 184 and Democratic Platform did not physically threaten Aristide in the palace, Morrell said.

What did threaten him was his failure to put down the long-percolating Gonaives uprising of former henchmen which resumed in earnest in September 2003 and culminated on February 5, 2004 with seizure of the central police station.

Observing these events from the Dominican Republic, an assortment of former henchmen, drug dealers, and former armymen and terrorists moved quickly to capitalize.

What made their progress possible was that they were welcomed or accepted by the population, and neither police nor thugs were willing to fight for Aristide.

Approaching Port-au-Prince they scared Aristide out on February 29.

Morrell recalled that in 2001 the Haiti analyst Georges Fauriol had warned that the Bush administration’s passivity would mean that other actors would eventually emerge and present choices far less palatable than the ones available then. Morrell considered that Fauriol’s prediction had been completely borne out by events. The Bush administration had neglected the issue for three years, right up to the end.

This being the case he did not see what the complaint was when these other actors eventually emerged to do the job. Forced on their own resources, the Haitian people did it their own way, a combination of the new and the old.

The new was the intellectual movement and the unusually large street demonstrations. The old was the Cacos taking over the north and moving on the capital.

Normally, in Haitian history, they would simply seize the palace and install the next president. To the victors belong the spoils. But this time as in 1915 an American occupation stood in the way. As a result the Latortue administration was installed.

Some legitimation was supplied by the constitutional forms that were observed, those few that were applicable amidst the ruin of the institutions. Some was provided by partial implementation of the Caricom proposal and U.N. Security Council resolution 1529.

But the major legitimation was provided by the previous struggle of the people to get beyond the Aristide devastation. By taking stances reflective of Haitian public opinion Latortue sought to build the cohesion and stability of his regime.

In this regard, Latortue’s characterization of Jamaica’s harboring of Aristide as an unfriendly act and his recalling of an ambassador struck a chord among many Haitians. And indeed, Caricom had been highly unobjective and biased at meetings of the OAS’s permanent council. So Latortue’s move here was both consistent with the facts and legitimizing.

Similarly, Latortue sought political cohesion out of his remark at Gonaives characterizing the drug dealers and thugs of the rebel movement, who had chased Aristide out of the country, as freedom fighters.

Morrell thought that this remark needed to be carefully considered. They did free Haiti. They did fight. Did this make them freedom fighters? Morrell asked.

He considered this to be merely a question of semantics. The remark was maladroit. Whether it rose to the level of the capital case some had made of it, he was not so sure.

It was to the benefit of all concerned, Morrell considered, that the frail transitional regime should seek to subsume these players rather than confront them because it simply lacked the means. It was using political means available to it to finesse the situation.

The alternative would be to have the foreigners assault a rebel presence that had considerable sympathy from the population. This operation risked converting the foreigners from being stabilizers or supporters to being occupiers.

With the rising demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, Morrell was not sure that the United States could spare the soldiers that might be needed for such an operation.

The better way, he thought, was to build up the capabilities of the interim regime so that it eventually would be able, amidst the other myriad tasks before it, apply a judicial process to these and all outstanding criminals.

The alternatives to the transitional regime were considerably worse, Morrell said. One alternative, if the ground were cut from under the transitional regime, could be a takeover by one of the many flamboyant personalities on the scene, ranging from Danny Toussaint or Guy Philippe or even Jean-Claude Duvalier. This would return the country to square one.

Another would be greater reliance on the foreigners as the regime failed to build up its capacities. This would create a de facto trusteeship. But Morrell did not believe the Haitians so lacked capacity that they needed a trusteeship.

Morrell recalled that it had previously been represented that the OAS negotition process was “the only game in town.” That, he said, it never was, and it increasingly became irrelevant to the realities of Haiti.

However, the transitional administration, considering the alternatives of letting the country fall into ungovernability or taking it over outright, might well qualify for the sobriquet of “the only game in town.”