- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2000

Like the cat that wouldn't go away, Haiti has now become a well-fixed perennial problem for the United States

and the outgoing Clinton administration. It wasn't supposed to be that way. After 20,000 American soldiers landed in Haiti six years ago, the Washington talk was all about restoring democracy and nation-building. Today, that talk has long vanished. Even the United Nations is about to pull out.

It gets more peculiar than that. Sunday last Haiti held its fourth presidential election since the downfall of the Duvalier family dictatorship. A reason for rejoicing? Well, no, not exactly. Although Jean-Bertrand Aristide won handily he ran against a half-dozen nobodies who were too terrified to appear in public the Clinton administration does not recognize the election's legitimacy and Mr. Aristide's victory. Let us not dwell on the irony of rejecting a man Washington was willing to spill blood in restoring to power in 1994.

Washington has a point. The Haitian presidential election did not get its imprimatur because the election results of last May's legislative elections were cooked by which Mr. Aristide's party, the Lavalas Family, won a number of Senate seats without the required majority. Subsequently, three members of the nine-man Provisional Electoral Council tasked to oversee Haiti's elections quit or were pushed out when they failed to recognize the "results."

Today, the Council is stacked with Aristide supporters and will no doubt remain in place for the life of Mr. Aristide's presidency. The former priest now has huge majorities in Haiti's bicameral Parliament, enough to amend the constitution and make him president for life, if that's what he wants.

He says he doesn't. No matter. U.S. relations, including a once lavish aid program, have been put on hold. While there are nearly three months to go before Mr. Aristide is inaugurated, American policy-makers have painted themselves in a corner. It will take the next president to figure a way out.

It is certain Mr. Aristide won't make the first move after all, what is he supposed to do? And that's the case because, without U.S. backing, Haiti's desperate situation will only get worse. What should the next American president do about this upcoming catastrophe in the Caribbean? First, end any illusion about the prospects for nation-building. Despite valiant efforts from the international community, it has not worked in Haiti. Every one of its some dozen elections have been deeply flawed. Haiti's rickety infrastructure is on the verge of collapse despite the waste of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The economy remains shattered with some 80 percent of the population unemployed although, since this is Haiti, no one is sure about the numbers.

Haiti's institutions simply don't work. The courts despite massive infusions of foreign aid remain as primitive as ever complete with illiterate judges. Haiti's once celebrated police force that was supposed to have 6,000-plus well-trained officers, has a complement of fewer than 1,500. Those remaining are demoralized, badly equipped and increasingly corrupt. Crime, meanwhile, is skyrocketing including drug-running. And please, don't expect the culprits of Haiti's dozen or so pipe bomb explosions to be caught. Not even the usual suspects have been rounded up.

Parliament will be Mr. Aristide's rubber stamp. And the incoming president, never strong on administrative skill, promises to do little to make the country's moribund ministries function. As for market reforms, the only means to rescue one of the world's poorest economies well, forget about them, too. Mr. Aristide doesn't believe in capitalism so far as he understands that word and he won't accept American tutelage on this or any other matter.

Hopeless? Well, yes, by normal standards. But there are things that can be done to keep matters from getting worse. First, sooner or later, we must make our peace with Mr. Aristide, but with no illusions. After all, what is the alternative? The opposition parties chose not to run, in part, because they could not win. Mr. Aristide alone commands the affection and loyalties of an increasingly desperate majority. Second, Washington's present course of funneling aid through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is prudent. The NGOs are Haiti's lifeline. Without them, easily a million Haitians could starve. Starving Haitians means they will go down to the sea in boats many disappearing before the U.S. Coast Guard could ever intercept them. The United States cannot let that happen.

What else? Other than that, not much, particularly in the short run, but it isn't nothing and even that will require extraordinary patience and skill to accomplish. Fortunately, neither Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush have to be burdened with the failure of the old policy. A President Gore doesn't even have to be embarrassed about it. After all, the vice president wasn't grabbing the limelight and claiming a success in Haiti. Bill Clinton did that. So leave that part of the legacy to the Arkansas traveler and move on to a more limited, realistic policy.

Roger Fontaine is a Washington-based writer and was a member of the Reagan National Security Council staff.

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