Way down south where warm Atlantic breezes blow, political partisans are fighting over election results, with the contestants disputing the count, some voters claiming they have been disenfranchised, and the apparent winner accused of heavy-handed tactics that cast doubt on his legitimacy. So forgive Haitians if they aren’t paying full attention to the Bush-Gore squabbles in Tallahassee.
You remember Haiti. For a brief period six years ago, it was deemed important enough to warrant American military intervention, which served to expel a dictator and bring back the rightful elected leader. The Clinton administration used to claim this mission as one of its proudest foreign policy successes. But you don’t hear many boasts about Haiti in Foggy Bottom anymore.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, had been toppled by a military coup and driven into exile. With the economy in ruins, political violence running rampant, and Haitians fleeing northward to that oasis of civic serenity, Florida, President Clinton issued an ultimatum to the military rulers: “Your time is up. Leave now, or we will force you from power.” They chose to leave rather than face the armed might of the United States, which sent 20,000 troops to occupy the country shortly after their departure.
Mr. Aristide came back to serve out his term, and Mr. Clinton commended him for promising to “promote reconciliation among all Haitians” and to “honor the Haitian voters who put their faith in the ballot box.” But the White House didn’t notice the early expiration date on those promises.
Constitutionally barred from running for re-election in 1995, Mr. Aristide installed a compliant successor, Rene Preval, after finishing his own term. Then he set about making sure that all that nonsense about the consent of the governed wouldn’t obstruct his plans for running the country as he saw fit.
Last year, Mr. Preval dismissed most of the legislature and saw no need to hold new elections. When he and Mr. Aristide finally allowed the Haitian public to vote for Parliament in May, opposition parties were the target of widespread violence and intimidation, including several murders.
To make things worse, the ruling Lavalas Party then engaged in a brazen manipulation of the vote count to secure a huge majority in the Senate even though that decision assured the government would be ostracized by the rest of the world. Afterward, a party spokesman felt obliged to announce, “We have no totalitarian intentions.”
Last month, Haiti held a presidential election, with Mr. Aristide allowed to run, and nobody came. The government says 60 percent of the people turned out, despite an opposition boycott, but the U.S. State Department says it may have been lower than 10 percent. In just six years, Mr. Aristide has not honored Haitians’ faith in the ballot box: He has destroyed it. Not that it mattered to the preordained result of this election, which was an easy victory for him.
International organizations have denounced the May vote as a fraud, and they refused to even send monitors for this one. The human rights group Freedom House says it probably will no longer classify Haiti as a democracy in its annual survey of the world. Washington has cut off all aid to the government of Haiti. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an end to the U.N. presence there because of violence against international workers.
Departures from democratic norms might be excused in a Third World country if it were making progress in other respects, following the example of Chile and South Korea in the 1980s. But Haiti doesn’t present that moral dilemma.
Despite all the help from the United States and the rest of the world, it is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with the average person subsisting on little more than a dollar a day. Half the population is illiterate, and infant mortality is 10 times higher than in the United States.
Journalist Amy Wilentz, author of a book on Haiti, wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine that under Mr. Aristide: “Life in Haiti has hardly improved. Poverty is unrelenting; the environment remains degraded; infrastructure, where it exists at all, is crumbling. Armed robberies, kidnappings and gangland-style killings have all increased… . Drug trafficking, a relatively new entry in the list of Haitian woes, has taken on a menacing intensity. And political assassinations have become as much a feature of the terrain as they were under the military regimes.”
The American mission in Haiti was hailed by those who want the United States to intervene wherever human rights are abused and insist we can do so effectively, at minimal cost in money and lives. For a while, it looked like a success. But today, even the naming of that undertaking sounds like a failure. It was Operation Restore Democracy.
Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.