The Problem is Power, Not Political Form

In its nearly two centuries as an independent state, Haiti hasnever been a true democracy. It seems highly unlikely to become one now, regardless of what the United States does -- or fails to do.

The problem in Haiti really involves power, not political form. For nearly two centuries warlords of various types have dominated the political system and savagely exploited the masses. Some of these warlords have been elected, but merely holding elections, does not a democracy make. Elections allowed some leaders to pretend that they had a popular mandate; it did not give them legitimacy.


It would be folly to believe that the restoration of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide will, by itself, make any difference. Nor should his externally imposed return -- should that be successful -- be regarded as "restoring democracy to Haiti."

The prospects for establishing a true democracy in Haiti today are not good. The timing is bad. The locale is certainly not conducive. And the international circumstances are quite unfavorable.


The problem of Haiti today is peculiarly Haitian. President Aristide might be Haiti's most popular politician. He won 67 percent of the vote in the elections of 1990. His popularity, however, does not translate into power; and raw power is what Haitian politics has always been about.

Mr. Aristide draws his support from the miserably poor masses, mainly in the two large cities of Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien. Their support of Mr. Aristide is a manifestation of their simple preference for peace rather than chaos and their innate ability to discern decency. They have died in large numbers for this sincere belief. Rather than martyrs for a noble cause, these poor supporters have become unfortunate victims of endemic violence.

Arrayed against Mr. Aristide and his unarmed supporters are two groups that will not surrender power (or access to power) easily. These are the army and the numerically small, but influential and politically cynical, mercantile classes.

The Haitian bourgeois groups did not support Mr. Aristide. His populist pre-election rhetoric alienated and antagonized merchants and small landowners. They were happy to see him overthrown, and they have shown no enthusiasm for his return, now or any time. Democracy and democratic ideals do not appeal to the rich, nor is this group moved by pious sentiments about helping the destitute and unfortunate. The rich made deals with the Duvaliers, and when the Duvaliers lost power they simply made deals with their successors.

The army, as President Clinton and his advisers are slowly learning, represents an even more implacable foe. The army draws its support from a band of young, ruthless, determined and self-serving men. Throughout the history of Haiti the army has provided the opportunities for upward social and economic mobility, opportunities that in other societies would be provided by a general education or an expanding national economy. Haitian economy and politics produce waves of militaristic parasites who use their virtual monopoly over firearms as the great intimidator of the masses and the ultimate arbiter of political dispute.

For the Duvaliers it was the feared Tontons Macoutes. Under Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, Haiti's military chief, the paramilitary forces are called "attaches." Changing the name has not altered their unsavory conduct. They have inflicted great misery on the general population with impunity.

Controlling power has brought material reward for the army in Haiti. To the usual sources of general extortion has been added the lucrative conduit of illegal drugs from South America. Losing power would abruptly cut off those lucrative sources of financial reward.

Since the military might of the Haitian army is weak by international standards, the army was willing to negotiate the return of President Aristide. Its agreement for such return, however, rested on no true loss of its own recently acquired power.


That was its position in July when it felt that the combination of the United States and the United Nations gave Mr. Aristide a significant bargaining position. Reluctantly the army resigned itself to the accepted date of Oct. 30 for Mr. Aristide's return.

What seemed inevitable in July no longer appears so in October. A change in the international picture has given the Haitian army an unexpected opportunity and breathed new life into its resistance to Mr. Aristide.

That the Haitian army changed its mind stems from two international developments. The first is the crowding of the political agenda in the United States by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) issue and national health reform. Neither President Clinton nor the Congress appeared to have the will to pursue Haitian domestic politics. Paying heed to Haiti, it was felt, stretched their attention too thin.

The second and more important development stemmed from the dramatically changed situation in Somalia. When the perception of the United States's role in Somalia shifted from a humanitarian to a "nation-building" mode supporters of the mission began to ++ have second thoughts. The increased military casualties evoked traumatic memories of Vietnam and other agonies.

With opposition to the United States role in Somalia growing both in that country as well as in Congress, General Cedras and his colleagues got a new leverage against Mr. Aristide.

They read the rising opposition to further military action in Somalia as a lack of will on the part of the United States, and that changed the entire picture in Haiti. The retreat of the small naval party sent to prepare the way for Mr. Aristide's return merely reinforced the correctness of their vision, the apparent justice of their cause and the fortunate change in their circumstances. Without United States military support, the United Nations could be rebuffed without fear of retaliation.


The new Haitian strategy is clear. The military leaders are wrapping themselves in their nationalistic flag and projecting images of the previous United States military occupation of 1915 to 1934 -- the era of the "big stick" policy. With their monopoly of local fire-power, this is a game they can play indefinitely.

The reimposition of a trade embargo merely plays into the hands of the Haitian military. It is a patent admission of political weakness by the United States. For 31 years, the United States has maintained an embargo in a vain attempt to encourage the overthrow of the Cuban government. It never worked during 31 years in the case of Cuba, and the chances are no better in Haiti.

In any case, the Haitian military is prepared to ride out an embargo for an equal length of time. The embargo will undoubtedly create hardships, but mainly for the already destitute and the powerless. The inconveniences for the upper classes and the army will be minor. And the predictable result will be an increase in the number of Haitians willing to flee their homeland.

Creating circumstances that increase the number of Haitian boat people should not be the goal of the United States. The policy should aid the suffering Haitian people as much as President Aristide.

Haiti and Somalia are not similar cases. In Haiti the use of international force seems clearly justified, just as it was in the case of the Dominican Republic in 1965. Then the Organization of American States, under the auspices of the United States, sent in 40,000 troops with the specific mission to disband the local army, hold open elections and leave the government of the country to the Dominicans. It worked then. It could work again in neighboring Haiti.

Franklin Knight, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of several books on the Caribbean.