Blessings from Papa Doc

IF HE were alive to offer counsel, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Haiti's last elected dictator, would tell today's bosses that their determination to block the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the most recent freely elected president, offends the memory of their predecessors. Worse, from the bosses' point of view, it is stupid.

If asked to explain, Duvalier might note that it does little good to have an opponent free to act as a loose cannon overseas, especially one who can cultivate influential audiences. This kind of adversary needs to be rendered, at the very least, politically impotent.


True, Mr. Aristide has less influence today than when the bosses expelled him in 1991 -- partly because of the determined efforts by the CIA and Sen. Jesse Helms to label him a madman, partly because the Bush and Clinton administrations have been so impatient with his reluctance to act as their lap dog.

But the international oil embargo on Haiti, and the French and U.S. proposals to impose a total blockade, suggest that today's bosses cannot be truly successful unless they accede to the Clinton administration's demands that Mr. Aristide be allowed to come home.


In the first place, Papa Doc would remind the bosses, the purpose of seizing the machinery of government is to get rich. Under normal circumstances there are three ways to do this:

* Raid the public treasury. It usually brims with revenues from import and export taxes on commodities, exit and passport fees on travelers and receipts from state enterprises that produce wheat, flour, cement, electricity, drinking water and telephone services.

* Collect money directly from people willing to pay handsomely for political favors -- favors such as monopoly licenses for import, export or domestic distribution of goods; laws that protect businesses from local or foreign competition; turning a blind eye to the arrivals and departures of small aircraft in transit between Colombia and the United States.

* Have the central bank order more bank notes. This method is not as good as the others because it devalues the currency. But production of a few million dollars' worth of notes, judiciously timed, is always handy.

The partial embargo now in place has proved a godsend to many bosses and their allies in the business community, as one might expect, under the laws of supply and demand (and monopoly profit).

But a politician of Papa Doc's epic shrewdness would insist that it isn't enough; the amounts involved are too small. After all, bosses in Haiti are always at risk of expulsion at a moment's notice. Lacking marketable skills, they must accumulate enough wealth to last several lifetimes in exile.

So from their point of view, it is surely unwise to provoke foreign governments to join Mr. Aristide in calling for a total embargo, which could stop the flow of taxable commodities, halt the operations of state enterprises, render the search for favors pointless and even make it hard to pay for bank notes.

To be sure, an airtight embargo is unlikely. As Papa Doc might note, one can always rely on bleeding hearts in Europe and North America to denounce the misery that such an action would visit upon Haiti's wretched millions.


Thus, Duvalier would say, if Mr. Aristide's return is the price of putting things right, then the bosses should pay it. If the price also includes departure of the army and police chiefs, Raoul Cedras and Joseph Michel Francois, as specified in the agreement at Governors Island in New York in July, this should be paid as well. These chaps can come back in a few days, or not. There is no shortage of candidates to fill their posts.

And then Duvalier would come to the delicate part: figuring out what to do with the president after he returned. Even if Mr. Aristide called for restraint, some of his supporters might still try to settle old scores. This would probably be a minor nuisance; guns outshoot machetes.

By contrast, efforts by Aristide ministers and other appointees to retake the treasury, state enterprises and other money centers would be a major problem. If successful (and if smart enough to grasp the strategic importance of guns in Haitian politics), they might well be able to alter the composition of the regular officer corps and, following Duvalier's own example, bring some of the armed forces to their side.

So what would Papa Doc counsel at this point? Arresting Mr. Aristide or imprisoning him would offer no obvious advantages over continued exile. So long as he lives, he remains the masses' main symbol of hope; better that the masses continue to hope for divine, not temporal, deliverance.

In any event, if he returns, the Clinton administration does not look very likely to assist him. By now he is a stubborn thorn in its side more than anything else.

At one time American Marines, perhaps accompanied by French and Canadian troops to give the operation an international cachet, might have protected a returning Aristide.


They might have deployed on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, blocking the four highways out of the city and waiting for the bosses and their armed forces to surrender to them. The possibility of this is now zero. Indeed, the winds of U.S. public opinion now even allow actions that in other circumstances might be seen as more disgraceful than expedient.

Having the Coast Guard prevent Haitians from escaping their island prison, for example, or welcoming Cuban refugees while repatriating Haitians who land in Florida.

Winds can change. If half a million Haitian-Americans marched on Washington -- or if even a few thousand were to persist in making loud political noise with the White House, Congress and the news media -- that would certainly push Haiti toward the foreground of U.S. political consciousness.

But as Duvalier would doubtless advise, such events will not materialize in time to salvage either Aristide or his immediate successors. In fact, given the primitive political organization in 11 the Haitian-American community, they may never materialize.

The road to riches in Haiti thus remains as clear today as when Christopher Columbus first traveled it in search of gold in 1492.

If the bosses strive to use guns in the manner that has served them so well in the past, and if one U.S. administration after another continues to play into their hands, things will stay that way for a long while.


Simon Fass, professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas, is author of "Political Economy in Haiti: The Drama of Survival.")