- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

Time to “walk back the cat” on Haiti, or at least pick up the thread. With Haiti — a tragic place where conspiracy theory and vicious rumor occasionally intersect actual events — the question is always which thread?

Ten days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide either: (1) agreed to quit power to avoid an expanded civil war, or (2) was “abducted” by the evil Bush administration, or (3) fled Haiti in utter confusion and fear. Meanwhile, a new “interim” president, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, has taken the oath of office. During the ceremony, Aristide supporters wandered the streets of Port au Prince chanting “Aristide or death.”

Each version of events has cheerleaders. Secretary of State Colin Powell and France’s Foreign Ministry provide evidence to support No. 1. Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, on a hard-left cable TV program “sort of” opted for No. 2, though she admitted the State Department dismissed such allegations as conspiracy theories. From exile (he calls it prison), Mr. Aristide promotes No. 2.

Reject 2 out of hand. Mr. Aristide is a corrupt liar, a once well-intended reformer who discovered he liked money and power more than tackling the awesome task of reforming Haiti. Bet on a volatile combination of versions 1 and 3.

I’m not sure a civil war has been averted. I know confusion and fear cripple Haiti and damage prospects for political reconciliation and social reform.

Haiti became an independent republic early in the 19th century, but its political model was Napoleon, not John Locke. However, it’s the 20th-century legacy of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier that damns reform. Papa took power in 1957 and died in 1971. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ran the Duvalier death machine until he fled to France in 1986.

In early 1987, short months after the Duvalier collapse, I visited Haiti. My driver, Louis, took me to one of Papa Doc’s villas north of Port au Prince, or at least the remains of a villa.

Louis had it on good authority that when Baby Doc skipped to France, “people” attacked the mansion “to release anger.” Heckuva attack. One of the bathrooms —such atrocious pink tile — had been raked with gunfire. Fist-sized holes punched the walls. Shards and snips of tile and opaque glass littered the floors. The people releasing anger had some firepower.

Louis assured me Papa Doc himself had observed the murder of political opponents at the villa. Everyone knew this. And “not far away is a concrete pool,” Louis said. No, he hadn’t seen the pool, but people said Papa Doc had drained it then dumped bound prisoners in it. Death by drowning? Try execution by grenades. Duvalier thugs tossed fragmentation grenades into the concrete hole.

I’ve since read of a Duvalier-era execution similar to Louis’ terrifying rumor, but that’s the point: terror. Papa Doc used sadistic murder, rumor and conspiracy theories as political voodoo, to intimidate and to control. He kept the entrepreneurial Haitians in kleptocratic thrall, stealing or siphoning funds while murdering a generation of leaders. And he and his henchmen did this, not Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

The Duvaliers left the land a dead zone. In 1920, forest covered 70 percent of the country; it now covers 2 percent. With the forest kaput, erosion creates a tropic moonscape of barren hillsides.

In 1994, the Clinton administration (with help from Colin Powell) jawboned a military junta from power. Shortly thereafter, I wrote in a column that concluded it would take 30 years of focused U.S. aid to change Haiti. A friend who visited Haiti in 1995 disputed my estimate. He reported seeing a Haitian poster that read, “America, stay in Haiti 50 years.”

The Clinton administration promised to change Haiti and back a sustained international effort. As with most Clintonian commitments, the promise disappeared when it no longer rated headlines.

Author Graham Greene, whose novel, “The Comedians” (1968), is still the most vivid and damning description of Papa Doc’s psychotic dictatorship, thought Haiti a nation in hell.

No matter whose version of Mr. Aristide’s demise you buy, in 2004, a sad and suffering hell it definitely remains.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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