Haiti: Despotism Again?

April 2, 2004

With U.S. forces enmeshed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere globally, the Bush administration hardly needs to add Haiti to its list of worries. Yet things could get worse, fast, with our island neighbor if U.S. officials don’t exert their huge influence there immediately ? to quash the unacceptable behavior of Haiti’s leaders of the moment and to enlist more allies to create even a semblance of a more workable government.

To end the political violence and restore order in Haiti, administration officials first must get other nations to send troops. United Nations forces won’t set foot in Haiti until it’s more stable. That will be tough to achieve because no other nation, save Brazil, has agreed to join the initial contingent of 1,940 U.S., 825 French, 435 Canadian and 330 Chilean troops now deployed. A big roadblock to more international involvement is the refusal by leaders of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, or Caricom, to recognize the legitimacy of Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s rule.

Caribbean leaders want the U.N. to investigate the circumstances of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s resignation and U.S.-assisted exile in February before accepting Latortue. While it’s unclear what such a probe would accomplish, Latortue’s odious behavior has not helped the U.S. make its case that he and his regime merit badly needed outside help.

Upon taking office, Latortue vowed to form a government to unify Haitians, including members of Aristide’s Lavalas party. But he then promptly excluded the opposition in his 18-member Cabinet. Although he promised there would be no immunity for Haitians implicated in politically motivated murder, Latortue, in one of his first official acts, traveled to Gonaives and praised as “liberators” the thugs responsible for the deaths of scores of police. He also paid inexplicable tribute to Amiot Metayer, an assassinated crime baron whose Cannibal Army gang ? widely believed to have been armed by Aristide to terrorize his political adversaries ? controlled drug trafficking at the docks at Gonaives. Latortue has capped his faux pas by alienating Caricom members, threatening to suspend Haiti’s diplomatic relations with them over member Jamaica’s granting of temporary asylum to Aristide.

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan rightly explains, “Haiti clearly is unable to sort itself out, and the effect of leaving it alone would be continued or worsening chaos.”

That’s a message that U.S. officials must make Latortue hear. He needs to understand his beggared stance ? that without U.S. and international aid, he can only be a despot of despair. If he truly wants to help his poor and starving people, however, he should keep his good intentions and promises ? and his mouth closed.