Starving in the name of democracy

IT'S NOT HARD to believe that people would rather go back to a known tyrant than spend one more day in an unfamiliar place behind barbed wire. What other choice do Haitians have, really?

Now that hundreds are voluntarily returning home from the refugee camp set up at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human rights activists are pointing at the Bush administration for having a policy regarding Haiti that makes us look racist.


The issue is whether the 12,000-plus Haitians who have been captured at sea on their way to the United States have a legal claim to political asylum. President Bush maintains that most Haitians are merely economic refugees, regardless of their race. In truth, the United States each year sends back more than 1 million "illegal aliens" of every color and stripe, including white Europeans.

So let's set aside all the humanitarian reasons for the United States to help the Haitian refugees, and let's concentrate on what's causing this very human drama and what needs to be done about it.


The problem stems from some power-hungry generals with a tiny military force of 7,000 men and hardly any political power. They have taken over a country of 6 million people, a majority of whom support President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected leader of Haiti.

The problem is familiar to most every country in Central and South America. But now, for the first time, those countries are positioned to do something about it. Now, for the first time, all but Cuba have leaders elected by the people.

Why aren't those countries going to the rescue of an elected president? As members of the Organization of American States, those countries have a responsibility to protect democracy in the region. But the OAS has a long-held policy of not intervening militarily in someone else's coup, because that's considered an internal matter. So in the case of Haiti, the OAS has imposed an embargo on the country, as if the people in the poorest country in this hemisphere could survive with even less.

I'm no interventionist, but if there is one case in which it's warranted, it is in Haiti. In this very narrow instance -- in which a democratically elected president has been removed from power by force -- it is the obligation of all democratic countries in this hemisphere to act decisively.

After all, this assault on democracy has spilled over from the confines of Haiti's borders and is creating a regional problem. Haitians aren't just setting sail to the United States; they are fleeing to other countries.

Most important, having the OAS stand up for democracy would send a very strong signal to the military that unpopular leaders are to be voted out of office by the people, not booted out by generals.

Had the OAS acted on Haiti quickly -- instead of puttering along for five months with an embargo -- would there have been an attempted coup in Venezuela? Most likely not. The military leaders who are unhappy with Venezuela's president would have had the Haiti example to fear.

In polite, diplomatic terms, the OAS needs to place a peacekeeping force in Haiti temporarily, until its popularly elected president can be safe to pursue democracy. The United States has used that tactic before in the region -- most recently in Grenada and Panama. But it's not our responsibility now. In the new world order, that responsibility falls to the OAS, with the U.S. military playing the role of a member country like any other.


In reality, an invasion of Haiti would restore to power a man who is not a perfect democrat, however democratically elected Mr. Aristide may have been. Still, he's what the majority wants.

It would be kinder for the OAS to invade Haiti than to keep starving its people with an embargo in the name of democracy.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.