- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

Nothing became Jean-Bertrand Aristide in office like his leaving it — and so not inviting still more bloodshed.

The country’s president and demagogue-in-chief decamped in the style of other Haitian dictators over the years. How many other presidents of Haiti have been forced out over its troubled history — 10, 20, 30? We lose count, though the more colorful stand out, like Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, father-and-son tyrants.

Also, do you count Jean-Bertrand Aristide twice, since this is the second time he has fled into exile? The first time to the United States, and now apparently to any African country that will have him. (It wasn’t easy for Colin Powell, secretary of state and travel agent par excellence, to find lodgings for him.)

Having come back to power on American bayonets, Mr. Aristide was ushered out in much the same way. And his country is left to shake off his memory like a bad voodoo spell.

It all sounds like a bad travelogue: “And so, as the sun sets on the land of the machete and the Tonton Macoutes, the Peron of the Caribbean League takes flight to ancestral Africa….” As if that continent didn’t have enough dictators of its own. This one will doubtless find a comfortable hideout there. Like Napoleon on Elba, he can while away the time plotting his Triumphant Return. Everybody needs a hobby.

Somehow you knew all this would be blamed on the United States, but it’s difficult to see how Washington could have sent the Marines in any earlier. Then it would have had to side with the dictator’s thuggery — unthinkable — or fight it, which would have risked even more violence than Haiti has had to endure of late.

Washington moved with painful slowness, but at least it moved. One of the strangest reactions to the arrival of the Marines on the chaotic scene came from John F. Kerry, the senator and Democratic front-runner. He said the administration should have acted sooner — in support of the Aristide regime. Why? Intervening on behalf of democracy is chancy enough. Why intervene on behalf of a dictator?

Strange thing about Jean-Bertrand Aristide: As his popularity waned at home, his lobby in this country seemed to grow stronger. Distance lends even dictators enchantment. Not only Sen. Kerry but leading Democrats in Congress — like John Conyers and Charles Rangel — had a good word for the despot long after most of his own people wanted to see the back of him.

The dictator’s friends here, safely removed from the corruption and violence of the Aristide regime, insisted on seeing him as some kind of Jeffersonian Democrat — even after he had cooked a legislative election that even the United Nations saw through.

I say Mr. Kerry’s reaction was one of the strangest reactions to events in Haiti because the fantasy world in which the far left lives has only begun manufacturing conspiracy theories about what happened there.

To some, this is just another B-movie script in which the freely elected leader of a small, struggling country is overthrown by the wicked imperialists. Screenplay by Maxine Waters, the wacky congresswoman from California who fingered the CIA as the cause of the crack epidemic.

Messr. Aristide has always been good at churning out this kind of thriller himself. Having escaped with his life from his enraged countrymen, the dictator-in-exile is now pictured — indeed, pictures himself — as having been abducted by the Americans. It takes a rare kind of gratitude to paint one’s rescuers as kidnappers.

Only after being told that, no, the United States would not ring his presidential palace with Marines to protect him did the sainted president of the republic decide to resign and flee on an American plane; the suffering of the people outside hadn’t been enough to convince him. To Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the most important thing has always been Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

St. Jean-Bertrand now enters urban legend. A whole new conspiracy industry is being spawned, with its own equivalent of another gunman on the grassy knoll. Coming soon to a theater near you: “I Was Kidnapped by the Americans” (Is Oliver Stone available for director?)

Saved by the bell, this bedraggled fighter now accuses the timekeeper of rigging the bout. That’s just like Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That’s just like Haiti, where even the shadows carry AK-47s. It has been ungovernable for a couple of centuries. A ferocious slave revolt there was enough to make Napoleon Bonaparte himself give up his dreams of empire, sell Louisiana to les Yankees, and never look back. The United States enjoys no such luxury; we’re close enough to hear the screams.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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