London. -- The last time the U.S. intervened in Haiti was 1915. The situation was little different from today's. There had been continuous civil war, rebellion and riots; six presidents served in four years. The last had been captured by a street mob, dragged into his garden and hacked to pieces. The bits were distributed around the town.
At that time, Washington really believed it had strategic interests at stake. The Panama Canal was about to open, which appeared to increase the importance of Haiti. Would the Europeans intervene and threaten the regional American hegemony enshrined in the Monroe Doctrine?
On the afternoon of July 28, 1915, Marines and sailors disembarked from an American warship. Haitian people stopped and stared but offered no resistance.
The Americans stayed for 18 years, building roads, bridges, hospitals, ports and the first automatic phone system in Latin America. There were street lights and drinking water; new trees were planted on the denuded mountains.
That was part of the story. But also, big American companies bought up the best land and evicted the peasantry. The French system of forced labor was reintroduced. And there was just the fact of white faces in Haiti, which had been independent since it drove out the French in 1804.
Resentment got the upper hand. The Americans increasingly felt out of place. In August, 1933, they sailed away.
Roads fell into disrepair, hospitals grew dirty, phones stopped working. A young black man, Francois Duvalier, led the masses into revolt against the mulatto elite. Papa Doc, as he was universally called, and his son Jean-Claude, Baby Doc, ruled Haiti with an iron fist for the next 30 years.
Only six years ago, in the midst of a popular revolution calling for democracy, Baby Doc drove himself at high speed to board a U.S. Air Force plane to exile in France. But, as events since his departure have made abundantly clear, the corruption and violence which he and his father built deep into the system of government has survived despite elections, purges of the army, periods of civilian government, aid and goodwill from outside, American and French pressure and the recent involvement of the United Nations. It survives despite an almost desperate, if it weren't so ridiculous, effort by the Americans -- this time in the company of Canadians -- to return as they did in 1915.
Yet Haiti is not hopeless. Poor as it is, it is more developed than most African countries. There is a sophisticated, cultured middle class, knowledgeable in literature, politics and economics. There's an energetic entrepreneurial class that creatively fashions enterprise out of scarce resources. There is a labor force that investors have long considered to be diligent and hard working.
Graham Greene's "The Comedians," captured the ugliness and havoc of the dreaded secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, now renamed "attaches," -- but it also drew a careful portrait of the civilized and caring Dr. Magiot. It is part of the outside world's fascination with the forces of evil that the first image is recalled ahead of the second.
Civilized Haiti throws up brave men like the interim prime minister, Robert Malval, and the assassinated minister for justice, Guy Malary -- and, not least, the exiled "hollow-cheeked, goggle-eyed" priest-president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.
How far can the outside world help civilized Haiti against the malevolence of the army, the police and the attaches?
By no stretch of the imagination can Haiti be considered strategically important to the United States, although it might be desirable if a way could be found to stem the flow of migrants. Even the restoration of democracy would probably not do that.
Although international law supports the U.N. and the U.S., the endeavor to restore a democratically elected president, bringing in outsiders to fight in Haiti, may still be counter-productive. Whether it takes nine months, as in Somalia, or 18 years, as the last time the U.S. went into Haiti, if the endeavor becomes self-defeating it is, by the lights of history, a failure.
The outside world can keep the pressure on by a rigorous embargo. It can help with negotiation, mediation, poll watching and medical and food relief for the poorest -- all of which the Clinton administration and the U.N. have done. But if there is to be a struggle, it is wiser to leave the fighting to the Haitians themselves. If outsiders spill blood it will more likely help than hurt the desperados inside Haiti.
But the recent American debacle at least has led, for the first time, to a really serious blockade. The civilized forces in Haiti now stand a chance of coming out on top.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.