Will U.S. Play Hardball in Dealing with Haitian Junta?


At first glance, the rhythmic splay of hundreds of arms -- a rapid butterfly motion of two-fisted sewing -- resembles some sort of mass ritual.

This flailing amid the factory fluorescence is actually a dream job in Haiti. Though increasingly hard to come by, $5-a-day jobs stitching American baseballs and softballs together with two needles at a time are still available in Haiti.

Two years after the United States first levied a punitive embargo on Haiti's military-backed government, there's still a good chance that some of the balls your Little Leaguer or slow-pitch player will be whacking away at this spring come from this benighted nation.

How -- after all the headlines about ratcheting the embargo up notch after notch to pressure Haitian thugs to reinstate democratically-elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide -- can this be?

Indeed, how did the United States register a sharp increase in trade with Haiti last year?

A loophole in the U.S. trade embargo exempts U.S. manufacturers with assembly plants in Haiti, allowing them to continue importing and exporting goods and employing Haitians.

It's a loophole that reflects some of the non-committal waffle of U.S. policy over its role with this troubled nation which, though vibrant culturally, is the Western Hemisphere's political and economic basket case.

"The main target of our policy is to restore democracy and ultimately to return President Aristide to Haiti," says Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

It's a sort of speak-loudly-and-carry-no-stick approach:

* The United States tells military leaders until they step down and allow Mr. Aristide to return, it will punish them with a trade and oil embargo. Meanwhile it exempts its own businesses from participating in the sanctions.

* The de facto Haitian government is anti-democratic and must go, the United States declares, while forcing Haitian boat people found on the high seas to return to the Caribbean nation, no questions asked.

* Meanwhile, underlying all of this is the almost cartoonish mutual distrust between the anti-American-priest-turned-politician Aristide and the American diplomats forced on principle to carry his flag.

For more than two years the United States, in coordination with bTC the Organization of American States and the United Nations, has sponsored an endless string of diplomats tramping between the feuding Haitian parties to try to bring them together.

There have been a series of agreements -- the latest of which was brokered last week by Haitian legislators brought to Washington and fed and housed by the private, non-profit Center for Democracy -- including variations on promises the military would step down, that Mr. Aristide would return, that there would be amnesty for the coup plotters. Invariably, one side or another -- this week it's Mr. Aristide -- spits on the agreement and stomps away.

In spite of the embargo -- which makes life painful for the Haitian masses, but merely difficult for Haiti's de facto rulers -- there is absolutely nothing to indicate this frustrating cycle will end.

It has largely been the brute force of extremists that has controlled and shaped Haiti from its otherwise noble beginning as the first nation formed by slave rebellion. It may be that U.S. policy is the only power equal to that brute force in effecting change there. It was U.S. companies that provided the nation's primary wage base -- the assembly sector. U.S. foreign aid has provided huge infusions of cash to the economy. U.S. policy helped bolster and then end the dynastic 30-year Duvalier dictatorship.

But the so-called "democratic transition" from dictatorship is eight years old this month and has produced more than a half-dozen interim governments.

"Does it look like we've accomplished anything?" asks a long-time U.S. businessman in Haiti, who wants to remain anonymous because he doesn't want his criticism of the United States to affect his embargo exemption. "The results [of promoting democracy] pretty much tell us about the decisiveness of U.S. policy."

There's a similar cynicism even among many of those who have been responsible for U.S.-Haiti policy.

But in defense of the embargo, Ambassador Lawrence A. Pezzullo, coordinator of the State Department's Haiti working group, tries to explain the difficult balance U.S. policy is trying to strike.

"How far do you want to go before you throttle a country completely?" he asks.

The embargo exemptions, he explains have a dual purpose: humanitarian and democracy building.

While 1993 trade figures show a 50 percent increase in imports from Haiti to the United States, assembly-sector employment has dwindled from a pre-embargo 50,000 to 15,000 today.

It is believed that every Haitian wage earner supports four to 10 others who don't earn money and might other wise starve under the embargo.

The exemptions also maintain the basis for a stable economy essential for democracy, Ambassador Pezzullo says. But it can be argued that in the same way they stabilize a democracy, the economic benefits of the exemptions help the military government avoid the embargo squeeze.

Behind any U.S. policy on Haiti, diplomats concede privately, is the desire to keep a costly wave of Haitian immigrants from landing on U.S. shores. Tales of rickety boatloads of Haitians -- often dressed optimistically in their Sunday-best clothes for the grueling journey -- drowning or being eaten by sharks make gruesome headlines. But, sadly, the headlines politicians and diplomats fear most are the ones announcing waves of Haitians succeeding in landing here.

Promoting democracy in Haiti, the theory goes, will help stabilize the economy and keep refugees home.

Coast Guard cutter patrols -- permitted by an agreement signed in 1981 by Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier -- pretty much keep the refugee flow to a minimum. The United States contends, and interviews with most refugees confirm, that the bulk of those who flee are not personally persecuted politically but are looking for a way to make a living.

Even though the United States cannot feel obliged to accept every Haitian refugee -- nor would that solve any of Haiti's problems -- it does have a contradictory feel to pack these people back to a military dictatorship that has a bloody human rights record. And to be doing it based on a dated deal struck with a reviled dictator adds to the discomfort.

Perhaps none of this frustrating policy has as much of a contradictory twist as the U.S.-Aristide alliance.

As Ambassador Pezzullo prosaically puts it: "It's like golf. You play with the ball that's hit. If it's behind a bush, it's tough stuff."

If Mr. Aristide is tough stuff for the United States, the United States is tough stuff for him. As a Catholic priest -- and a true visionary and inspiration for the impoverished masses -- he regularly referred to capitalism as "a deadly economic infection" and to Americans as "shadowy evildoers."

While he will beatifically explain that his "give them what they deserve" speeches as president were merely "beautiful" Haitian Creole proverbs, most now charged with trying to reinstate him don't doubt that he was urging a brand of undemocratic mob justice.

But the fact is, he was elected in voting that was certifiably democratic, and reinstating him would be a symbolic victory for the democracy that has eluded Haiti's grasp for more than 200 years.

But Haiti has so terribly far to go to become a democratic and economically viable society. Whether it can get there eventually will inevitably depend on getting sustained attention from the United States.

Clara Germani is assistant national editor of The Baltimore Sun. As Latin America correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, she covered Haiti from 1986 to 1989.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad