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Giving Haiti a chance: 
Aristide towers over potential alternatives.

Larry Birns and Sarah Townes - May 30, 2001

Larry Birns is director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric
Affairs, where Sarah Townes is a research associate


Haiti's seemingly eternal malaise is, if anything, worsening as a result of disruptive local politics, shrill rhetoric and the near elimination of overseas assistance.

Even though President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who last November again won the presidency by a huge margin) agreed to a number of mischievous conditions for U.S. aid to resume, Washington has given no indication that it would be forthcoming. The U.S. campaign of economic asphyxiation and political isolation is not only unseemly, but also gravely damaging to U.S. interests.

If this policy continues unaltered, it could bring added turmoil to the island, inevitably followed by renewed efforts of desperate Haitians willing to risk the dangerous 800-mile voyage to Florida.

Such an exodus would greatly embarrass the Bush White House, just as it did the Clinton administration, particularly as the interdiction pact has now lapsed.

The ``Democratic Convergence,'' a 15-party coalition of mainly micro-factions that vehemently reject Aristide's legitimacy based on charges of electoral fraud in last May's senatorial balloting, has named Gerard Gourgue ``Provisional President.'' This is bringing chaos closer. Gourgue called for the return of the commanders of Haiti's repressive armed forces, expelled by the U.S. military in 1994.

Despite its modest popular standing, the convergence effectively has been awarded a crippling de facto veto by Sen. Jesse Helms, Aristide's relentless avenger, with U.S. policymakers also insisting that it is the democratic alternative.

The convergence is the main obstacle to negotiations and the resumption of aid. Aristide first met with its leaders in February to discuss possible solutions to the stalemate. Regrettably, his offer to include some convergence leaders in his government and appoint a new impartial electoral body were peremptorily rejected. Aristide's call for initiating a dialogue also was rejected by the convergence, though he has offered to move up the next round of legislative elections.

The State Department and National Security Council always have viewed Aristide as a liability rather than as the island's principal political asset. Allegations against him routinely understate his wide support.  Aristide towers over potential alternatives and has worked hard to cooperate with Washington's often arrogant demands.

In December, the Clinton administration agreed to restore aid once the Haitian leader adopted eight conditions that addressed electoral and economic reforms along with narcotics smuggling, illegal migration and human-rights violations. Later, Aristide agreed to all of them.

After several requests by Haiti for help in addressing the election issue, the Organization of American States belatedly decided to dispatch a delegation to discuss election reforms. Since Washington largely determines OAS Haiti policy, its initiative's bona fides will require scrutiny.


There is a danger here, which comes far less from the fact that relatively few Haitians have any respect for the opposition coalition. Any outside imposed government and revitalized military, as hinted by Gourgue, could destroy the country's fragile human-rights situation, its enfeebled judicial system and its lame democratization process.

The Bush administration would do well to honor the commitments made by
President Clinton.

Failing to display some basic amity to Haiti's population will only add more yellowed pages to the profoundly jaundiced and mean-spirited links to Port-au-Prince, which historically have been characterized by condescension rather than respect.

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