Introduction:  Haiti in the 1980s

 Haiti has been the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere for many years.  Since the demise of the Duvalier dictatorship in the mid-1980s, the country has been wracked intermittently by political turmoil.  In spite of its severe problems, Haiti is a fascinating country culturally and its people are invariably gracious to outsiders.  It was this rich culture and the hospitality of Haitians that attracted me in 1981 when, after having first visited the country for temporary duty with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I accepted a long-term assignment in Haiti with USAID.

 Haiti was governed during the period by a dictatorship that did not tolerate political opposition, activist civil society organizations or journalists that did not follow the party line of the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier.  While street crime was very low, state-sanctioned crime was high; the most effective criminals were those tolerated by the government.  The notorious ton-ton macoute paramilitary thugs enforced the Duvalier Government?s will, in collaboration with the Haitian military.  The ?disappearances? of real or perceived opposition members during the reign of Jean-Claude Duvalier were not as frequent as those that occurred under Francois, Jean-Claude?s macabre father, but nevertheless the threat hanging over society was still palpable.   

Technical and missionary-affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed to do their work in Haiti during the Duvalier era and, as in subsequent years, these organizations provided many social services for the majority of the population.  Much of my time was spent working with such groups, helping to devise and implement projects for health, agriculture and road and water infrastructure repair.  Despite the seriousness of the country?s deep-seated problems, Haitians with whom I came into contact invariably were amiable to me, my American colleagues, and other foreigners.  Haitians also had a reputation as hard workers, and still do, striving for a better life for themselves and their families.   At the same time it was very clear during that era (as it is now) that most Haitians would have preferred to be living somewhere else; many cast their eyes longingly toward the United States.

 I left Haiti after concluding my assignment in 1984.  While my work took me to different parts of the globe over the next several years, I followed from afar events in the country as much as possible.  I had been profoundly affected by my experiences in Haiti, where life is incredibly difficult for the majority of the inhabitants, who nevertheless toil on stoically.  I felt a strong urge to remain informed of what was occurring in that tortured land.

Another Opportunity to Engage

 In the summer of 1993, I was assigned to the Office of the Deputy Secretary of State to work on policy and resource matters.  Not long after I began my new job on the seventh floor of the Department of State, the ongoing crisis in Haiti became the hot international political issue of the day.  Pressure in Washington was building on the Clinton Administration, and on the President himself, to resolve the political turmoil in Haiti that had resulted from the overthrow in 1991 of the nine-month old regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a military junta, that led to increased human rights abuses and an upsurge in attempts by desperate Haitians to reach the United States by sea.

 There were no easy solutions to this complex problem.  Negotiations for the return of the democratically-elected President of Haiti had been initiated, with the government installed by the Haitian military, by the Administration of President George H.W. Bush.  The serious lack of trust and other issues between Pres. Aristide, who had taken refuge in the U.S., and members of the Haitian military junta made it almost impossible to forge an acceptable solution.

 One school of thought was that the credible threat of the use of military force by the United States was necessary if the Haitian military was to be persuaded to negotiate in good faith.  However, the Clinton Administration was loathe to threaten the use of force in Haiti due largely to the debacle in Somalia during the period, where a number of U.S. service personnel lost their lives after a humanitarian relief operation turned sour when the military?s humanitarian mission changed to one involving confrontation with local warlords. 

The Haitian military authorities were well-aware of the disdain in the U.S. for future ?humanitarian? expeditions involving the use of force, and this made the negotiations for return of Aristide all the more difficult.  Compounding the problem was that Aristide himself was an unreliable, unpredictable negotiating partner.  Over time, it became clear that his motivations for attaining and regaining political power were more similar to those of Fidel Castro than those of his erstwhile South African hero Nelson Mandela.
 In early 1994 when the Haiti crisis continued to heat up, my unit was transferred from the Deputy Secretary?s Offices to those of the Secretary of State.  My own brief included Latin America and Caribbean matters and thus I felt compelled to pursue efforts to help resolve the seemingly intractable Haitian political stalemate.  The political stalemate also continued within the U.S. Government regarding how to deal with Haiti.  On one end of the spectrum were largely conservative, non-interventionists who wanted no part of plans to return Aristide to his country ? and certainly not by force — and liberals, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, on the other, who were pushing the Clinton Administration to increase pressure on the Haitian military junta to agree to Aristide?s return, through a tightened economic embargo if not by force.  

 The unfortunate Somalia experience ? which also contributed during the period to lack of international action to stop the Rwandan genocide ? in effect precluded U.S. military intervention in Haiti despite strong indications that the Haitian military would quickly lay down arms if threatened with force.  The Clinton Administration, encouraged by Aristide, instead orchestrated a strengthened international economic embargo on Haiti.  This was done despite strong indications that such an embargo would not easily achieve the intended effect of ?starving out? the Haitian military and would in fact adversely affect the Haitian economy as well as the majority of Haitians who already were living on the edge.

 I was among those who warned that such an embargo was unlikely to work because of the ability of the military and its supporters to continue to import essential goods, particularly through the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispanola.  But the Clinton Administration was determined to demonstrate to its critics that it could take concerted action to bring down the regime.  Unfortunately, what the embargo accomplished was increased human suffering within Haiti, an upsurge in illegal migration toward the U.S., and damage to the Haitian economy due to the departure of most foreign investors, from which the impoverished country still has not fully recovered.   For example, during the 1980s as many as 80,000 Haitians were employed by textile and other assembly factories.  This number fell to fewer than 25,000 workers (on whom many family members rely) during and after the economic embargo of the early 1990s.  To this day, only some 20,000 Haitian workers are employed by such export industries.

 While my recommendations regarding the embargo were ignored, others were not.  A draft paper I wrote that described a roadmap for successfully negotiating the Haitian crisis, ?The Haitian Conundrum,? was forwarded in April, 1994 to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State.  The classified document also was hand carried to the President?s Adviser for National Security and subsequently to the President?s Chief of Staff.  The thoroughly-documented paper created quite a stir when it was circulated more widely in May, 1994.  State Department officials leading the negotiations between Aristide and the military were not pleased due apparently to their concern that, in effect, I was inserting myself into the negotiation process. 

However, subsequently it became clear that both the problem analysis and proposed remedies were on the mark.  I was allowed to peruse, albeit quickly, complimentary comments written on the cover of the original copy of my paper by the Deputy Secretary of State, that made it very clear that the document was proving useful in the formulation of U.S. policy for Haiti.  However, due to the very delicate nature of the diplomatic negotiations (from both foreign policy and domestic policy perspectives) I was allowed neither to keep the original document nor to make a photocopy of the Deputy Secretary?s comments. 

The key findings/recommendations of the document were as follows:

1) Failure to re-instate the democratically-elected leader ousted by a coup in Haiti could contribute to similar plotting against other democracies in the Latin America and Caribbean region where a number of democratic governments were fragile.  (For example, I also was engaged in an effort to shore up the Guatemalan government that was under pressure from reactionary forces at the time.)

2) During the period just before Aristide?s election in 1990 until the time of his ouster in 1991, attempts at illegal migration from Haiti decreased dramatically.  After his ouster the exodus resumed.  Thus, if Aristide were returned to Haiti it was reasonable to assume that illegal migration would drop off, at least for a time.  (The analysis of this sensitive issue, in particular, caught the attention of senior USG officials.  Not only was illegal immigration from Haiti a hot domestic political issue, but President Clinton?s unfortunate experience with rioting Cuban refugees when he unsuccessfully ran for re-election as Governor of Arkansas made him very wary of ?refugee problems.?)

3) Legal immigration from Haiti to the U.S. was extremely low, due apparently to USG policy for granting very limited numbers of immigrant visas to Haitian applicants.  (This trend was reversed in the mid-1990s as USG policy shifted, in effect, encouraging legal migration from Haiti to the U.S.)

4)  Narcotics-trafficking through Haiti to the U.S., involving Haitian military and police authorities, was much more significant than previously estimated by USG agencies.  Also, there was evidence that Aristide had at least condoned drug smuggling by his associates while in office and could have been profiting himself from this illicit trade. 

5) The Haitian military and paramilitary groups would not put up a fight if confronted by the U.S. military and, indeed, their capabilities and will to resist did not approach that even of Somali irregular fighters.

6) Haiti would require special access for its products to U.S. markets if its economy was going to get back on its feet eventually.  Thus, new U.S. trade legislation was required granting access similar to that provided during the 1980s under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI).

7) If Aristide were restored to power, another prerequisite for economic recovery (in addition to special U.S. market access), would be a commitment by the Haitian leadership to economic reform.  A key measure of that commitment would be the appointment of technocrats (as opposed to political hacks) to the Cabinet and other senior posts.

The Embargo Fails:  The Threat of Force is Required

      Despite the imposition of the tightened trade embargo, that at its height also included a severe limitation of commercial air travel into and out of Haiti, imports such as fuel and other basic commodities critical for the maintenance of the regime continued to flow into the country, primarily through the Dominican Republic.  (To this day, robust untaxed/informal cross border trade persists.)

 One form of export from Haiti did increase dramatically ? people.  Attempts at illegal migration exploded, to the point where the U.S. Government had to petition countries around the region to temporarily house would-be refugees and U.S. military facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were rapidly filled with Haitian migrants.  The Clinton Administration finally realized that the strategy for ?starving out? the military regime was not working.  Other solutions had to be found, and quickly, as murders and other human rights abuses in Haiti and the flow of refugees out of Haiti continued.  Furthermore, members of the Black Caucus and other key Democratic Party constituencies continued to press the White House hard for more concerted action, with the fall 1994 U.S. by-elections approaching. 

 Thus, the decision was taken in summer, 1994 to threaten the use of military force and indeed to actively plan for military intervention.  In September, the combination of the credible threat of force and the negotiations managed by Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn with the Haitian de facto government bore fruit, albeit at the last possible moment when U.S. troops where en route to Haiti for what appeared to be an imminent invasion.   The de facto Haitian Government led by the military and Gen. Raoul Cedras caved to the pressure and no casualties due to hostile action were incurred by U.S. military intervention forces which peacefully entered the country.  Aristide returned in triumph in October.  The Clinton Administration declared the operation a tremendous political, military and humanitarian success.

Back to the Future

 I finished my assignment with the Secretary?s Office in 1995 and returned to USAID.  After several more years in Washington dealing with crisis situations involving such countries as Rwanda, the Congo, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia, I was provided the opportunity to serve in the top USAID job in the crisis country where I had cut my teeth in the Foreign Service?.Haiti. 

During the waning days of the Clinton Administration I had been assigned to run the USAID office in Mexico City, a small operation for my agency.  Shortly before my departure for Mexico, I was selected by the newly-ensconced Bush Administration to run the much larger, complex and more difficult Haiti program after the Haiti Mission Director at the time retired unexpectedly.  It was an offer that I felt I could not refuse.

 While there were a number of reasons why I took on the Haiti assignment,   underlying these motivations was a strong sense of responsibility.  I was convinced that I was partially responsible for the return to Haiti in1994 of President Aristide.  By many accounts the country?s economy was in a tailspin and its fledgling democratic institutions in threat of collapse due in large measure to Aristide?s failure of leadership.  While I realized that there wasn?t much that one man could do, I felt that I owed it to the Haitian people to come back to hopefully help set things right.

 It did not take me long after my arrival in Haiti in mid-September 2001 (my original planned arrival date was September 11) to realize that President Aristide was indeed a big part of the problem.  After finishing out his first term as President in the mid-90s, and waiting for the completion of the term of his hand-picked successor, Aristide was returned to office in 2000 through an election characterized by low voter turnout.  Desperately needed economic reforms, including privatization of money-losing government-owned companies, largely had not occurred during Aristide?s earlier term, nor during that of his successor, and it soon became clear that they would not be implemented under Aristide II. 

 The international community had been turned off by the blatant attempt by Aristide partisans to steal legislative and local elections the same year, which ensured that Aristide?s Lavalas party maintained a solid grip on power in most parts of the country.  This outrage, coupled with the obvious lack of intent for serious governmental and economic reform, ensured that the de facto freeze on foreign assistance to the Government of Haiti begun during the latter days of the Clinton Administration by the U.S., other countries and international banks would be continued under the Bush Administration.

 Thus, the environment into which I walked was one characterized by recriminations and counter-recriminations between Aristide?s partisans and members of the loosely-organized political opposition, and between Aristide and members of the international community, chiefly France and the United States, that he accused of orchestrating a new ?embargo? on aid to Haiti.  Meanwhile, the majority of the Haitian people continued to eke out a living on a meager income, supplemented for a number of families by funds sent from family members living abroad.  (Perhaps the most effective ?foreign aid? undertaken by the Clinton Administration for Haiti was the issuance in the latter part of the 1990s of many more immigrant visas for Haitians than in previous years.)

 Also fortunate was the realization by both the Clinton and the Bush administrations that significant foreign assistance for Haiti was still required, despite the ineffectiveness of government-to-government assistance, in view of the wretched conditions in this country of eight million people not far from Florida.  Therefore, one of the largest U.S. bilateral foreign aid programs in the Western Hemisphere was being maintained for Haiti, albeit one that was implemented by private companies and non-governmental organizations for both political reasons and for the sake of effectiveness. 

During most of the years that official aid to the Government of Haiti was suspended, the $60 million to $70 million USAID program in Haiti that I led provided vital assistance to the Haitian people through non-governmental organizations and private for-profit companies in areas such as Health including HIV/AIDS prevention, Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, Disaster Mitigation, Micro-enterprise, Democracy and Governance, Primary Education, and Food and Nutrition.  Some of the many American and Haitian agencies implementing these programs included, and still include, such household names as CARE, World Vision, Catholic Relief Service, and Save the Children. 

 Independent observers and evaluators have highlighted the effectiveness of some of these USAID programs implemented in the difficult Haitian security, economic, and social environment.  For example, the World Bank?s center for evaluating micro-finance programs singled out one of USAID?s projects in Haiti as an excellent example of how to implement a high impact yet simple program aimed at assisting small businesses operating on the margins.  This and other USAID-sponsored micro-enterprise development programs in Haiti have supported some 80,000 Haitian entrepreneurs, chiefly women heads of households based in rural areas.

 USAID support for community radio stations and independent journalists in Haiti, as well as our complementary assistance to civil society and human rights organizations, was important during the latter part of Aristide?s reign in helping democratic forces to resist authoritarianism.  More than 36 small community radio stations are now broadcasting around the country messages for health, education, and citizen?s rights under the Haitian constitution.  A human rights ?hotline? staffed by a lawyers association courageously reported human rights abuses by thugs associated with the ruling party, as well as by abusers not necessarily aligned with the government.  Children held in domestic servitude are being assisted to obtain an education or to otherwise have their fundamental rights protected by a foundation supported by USAID. 

 USAID?s private institution-based health program in Haiti also has had a significant positive impact.  The network of some thirty private providers serves approximately 2.5 million people or a third of the Haitian population around the country.  Haiti, with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the hemisphere, is one of the few poverty-ridden countries in the world where HIV prevalence is declining.  The reasons for this recent decline are many, but it is noteworthy that the current Haitian Prime Minister wrote in August 2004 to the USAID Administrator, ?There is no doubt that, thanks to the programs financed by USAID this (AIDS) pandemic is now on the decline in Haiti.?  This is an extraordinary accomplishment, of which health and other professionals associated with USAID should be proud.

Aristide leaves again

 In February 2004, almost a decade after President Aristide?s return to Haiti, he left once again in haste as a ragtag band of members of the former Haitian military and more newly-minted disaffected rebels ? some of whom had been previously affiliated with Aristide — approached Port-au-Prince spoiling for a fight.  The U.S. prudently decided to intervene militarily, again without a shot being fired, after convincing Aristide that it was in his and Haiti?s best interests for him and his family to flee the country.  Unlike ten years ago, however, U.S. military forces only remained in Haiti a few months, giving way to a UN peacekeeping force that is now trying to keep order.

 Since that time, the new Prime Minister installed by a temporary governing council has cited USAID for its vital support for maintaining services in the country ? particularly in the capital ? during this critical period between the departure of Aristide and organizing of elections for a new government.  Aristide?s supporters in Haiti continue to be a source of instability, both by supporting violence by thugs, and by otherwise trying to undermine the interim government through propaganda dissemination.  Aristide opponents, and particularly members of the former military and their sympathizers, also are contributing to the violence and instability. 

It was in this context that USAID quickly provided financial and commodity support to maintain electricity in Port-au-Prince, hire hundreds of workers, and help in the collection of garbage that was piling up in the streets of the capital.  By the Prime Minister?s own description, without this help the interim government probably would have fallen due to popular discontent with the quality of life in the capital.  While much remains to be done, the fragile Haitian caretaker government has been provided basic tools to succeed in the near-term while the country moves forward toward elections.  At the same time, there have been missteps, particularly in the administration of justice.  The court system and police force leave much to be desired.  Known criminals have been released from prison and they and others walk the streets with impunity.  Violence and kidnapping are daily occurrences in the capital.  Much remains to be done.

The significant foreign aid being provided by the United States and other countries and international financial institutions to Haiti is not a panacea.  Private investment is the key to long-term prosperity and growth.  The seeds have been planted for the eventual return of significant foreign investment to Haiti.  Congressional supporters of special U.S. trade legislation pertaining to textile exports from Haiti have attempted to use the findings of a USAID study to convince legislators from U.S. textile producing states that increased textile exports from Haiti to the U.S. do not pose a threat to employment in these states.  While the Haitian Economic Recovery and Opportunity (HERO) Act has made progress in the Senate and the House, to date neither body has fully agreed to send to the President legislation that would ensure the return of significant investment.  Estimates are that enactment of HERO would result in the near-term increase of jobs from the current 20,000 to over 100,000.  When one realizes that the income for the average Haitian factory worker supports five or six family members, the true potential impact of HERO becomes more apparent.


    It has been twenty-five years since I first visited Haiti and was instantly captivated by its people, and repelled by its poverty and sorrow.  In many ways the country remains as dismal now as it was back in 1980.  Many Haitians and Haiti watchers will tell you that things are worse now ? environmental degradation and security, for example.  But in some ways the country has improved; with the close of the Aristide era, there may now be a real chance for democracy to take hold.  Even while Aristide was in power, civil society and the independent media ?requisites for democracy ? began to flourish.  In addition, as indicated above, the scourge of AIDS apparently has peaked and has begun to decline.  Infant mortality, child malnutrition, and literacy indicators ? while still the worst in the hemisphere ? have improved over the past ten to fifteen years.

One?s perspective on these continuing problems depends in part on whether you are a ?glass half empty? or a ?glass half full? person.  I choose to be the latter.  (You might say that it is required by my line of work.)  Things must continue to change for Haiti to truly prosper in the future.  But hope springs eternal and the battle to make progress never ceases.  Many dedicated Haitian professionals and their American and other international partners are making a difference, even if the successes at times appear to be outweighed by the failures.  We must never give up the fight.   

The opinions expressed in this article are the author?s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development.