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The Case for American Intervention in Haiti

'TC Our Haiti policy, which was disfigured by a huge blunder -- the embargo -- shortly after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide 2 1/2 years ago, has become a travesty driven by the politics of race. The only way the Clinton administration can salvage U.S. credibility and its own dignity is through an intervention that dismantles Haiti's military and police institutions.

The embargo blunder was the consequence of an exaggerated U.S. and Latin American concern for "democracy" that has overwhelmed our other interests in Haiti, above all the well-being of millions of desperately poor Haitians. I put "democracy" in quotes for several reasons:

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* Since its independence in 1804, Haiti has not practiced the civic values that make democratic institutions work. This is not a case of "restoring democracy." Haiti's sole claim to democracy is that President Aristide was elected in 1990 by a substantial majority of voters.

* While that election must be respected, Father Aristide's credentials as a democrat are meager. He rode to power with essentially the same ideology as Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, including the same contempt for liberal political and economic institutions. Today, his Washington liaison staff includes a number of American "Saldalistas," still committed to the idea that U.S. imperialism lies behind the problems of Haiti and the Third World in general, and that utopian, Marxist "liberation theology" is the answer. (The term "Sandalistas" was derisively applied to American leftists who came to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista government.)

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* During his eight months in office in 1991, Father Aristide displayed little respect for democratic norms. As a result, a large majority of political parties, not just on the right, but in the center and on the left, supported the coup, as did most labor organizations.

* While human rights abuses have clearly intensified since the coup, Father Aristide's human rights record was far from exemplary. He bears a considerable responsibility for the numerous lynchings that occurred during his administration. The liberal human rights organization Americas Watch noted, "By our count, there were at least 25 cases [of burning tire "necklacing"]. . . . The biggest problem is not that Aristide did nothing to stop these incidents, despite his tremendous moral prestige. But in the last couple of months of his presidency, he actually gave two speeches encouraging" the necklacing of opponents.

Against this backdrop of dubious democracy, the Organization of American States and, subsequently, the United Nations (at the prodding of the United States) should not have imposed the punishing embargo, now well into its third year, but should have relied on diplomacy, carrots and less destructive sticks, which would have left us at arm's length.

The embargo punishment leaves us with the moral responsibility for squeezing a country where most of the inhabitants were already living at the margin of survival.

As P. J. O'Rourke asked rhetorically in a recent Rolling Stone article: "What else but politics could create a situation where miserable poverty is being fought by making poor people as miserable as possible?"

The embargo is all the more questionable because some of the Latin American leaders who pushed for it, former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez foremost among them, may have been more interested in sending a message to their own militaries than in promoting democracy in Haiti. Before his recent impeachment, Mr. Perez was almost ousted twice by the Venezuelan military.

The costs of the embargo have been appalling:

* Thousands of Haitians, especially children, have died from the embargo's exacerbation of Haiti's chronic malnutrition and disease problems through food and medicine shortages, higher food and medicine prices, higher transportation costs and unemployment. We'll never know how many died, but the number is surely much higher than the number of victims of military/police violence.

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* Tens of thousands of jobs have been wiped out in the two sectors that represent Haiti's only economic hope: tourism and employment-intensive industry.

* We have attempted to cushion the impact by feeding hundreds of thousands of Haitians. This has doubtlessly saved lives, but at what cost in terms of Haitian self-respect and self-reliance?

* We have opened ourselves wide to allegations of a double standard -- and racism -- in our foreign policy. Would we have invoked an embargo if the military had succeeded in ousting Mr. Perez in Venezuela, the second-most important source of our oil imports?

* The depredations of the embargo have increased the motivation of Haitians to risk their lives to escape in leaky boats, and a lot more of them are likely to run that risk after the announcement last week that Haitians seeking asylum can have their cases heard on U.S. ships. The embargo also has strengthened the political rationale for emigration. With Fidel Castro an anachronism, how can we continue a policy that welcomes Cubans with open arms while it repels Haitians who are embargo victims, particularly since many of the Cubans are now fleeing poverty, too?

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The Clinton administration's renewed pressure to intensify the embargo, its replacement last week of Lawrence A. Pezzullo as special adviser on Haiti by William H. Gray III, the expanded venue for asylum appeals and its trumpeting of the possible use of force constitute a travesty. All are apparently in response to pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and the hunger strike by Randall Robinson, executive director of the TransAfrica lobbying group. Both the Black Caucus and Father Aristide have repeatedly charged that U.S. policy is racist.

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In effect, the administration is saying, "Thank you for making us appreciate how inadequate -- and racist -- our Haiti policy is." The unseemliness of this admission of foreign policy ineptness is magnified by some dubious features of the campaign by black leaders. The Black Caucus and Mr. Robinson acknowledge neither Father Aristide's radicalism nor his abuses of power while in office.

Nor, insisting that the United States open the doors to Haitian immigrants, does the black leadership face the fact that poor black citizens, principally in Florida and New York, will be among those who suffer most from the competition for jobs and social services with Haitian immigrants, many of whom will be unskilled and unable to speak English. The annual costs to the U.S. taxpayer for education, health and housing 100,000 Haitian rTC immigrants -- millions would like to immigrate -- might approximate a billion dollars.

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We may yet succeed in cobbling together a "solution" short of a military intervention, despite Haiti's defiance last week in naming a new "government." But that solution is unlikely to lead to the dismantling of Haiti's security establishment, an indispensable precondition to real change.

The departure of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the army commander-in-chief, and Lt. Col. Joseph Michel Francois, the national police commander, would give no assurance that Haiti's profoundly corrupt institutions will behave differently in the future. Nor would Father Aristide's security be guaranteed should he return.

As was learned during the U.S. occupation of Haiti early this century, creating a professional security force in Haiti is much easier said than done. But starting fresh offers a chance.

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Our responsibility for an embargo that has inflicted so much suffering on Haiti should have led us long ago to a decision to support a Cambodia-style U.N. intervention that includes a commitment to stay the course until Haiti is back on its feet. Ironically, and cravenly, the OAS, which bears so much responsibility for Haiti's torment, will not support an intervention, and we may have to take the lead ourselves.

The shedding of U.S. blood in Somalia apparently traumatized the administration, above all the Pentagon, although some military experts believe that Haiti's security forces would dissolve at the sight of a modern military.

Moreover, other troops, from Caribbean countries for example, would be available. Even if some U.S. casualties had to be taken, the chance for a new start on building democratic institutions with at least symbolic participation by President Aristide would be worth it.

The low-risk approach may produce the appearance of an answer, but it is unlikely to produce a lasting solution. The ill-advised, ruinous embargo leaves us with a moral obligation to intervene.

Lawrence Harrison was the U.S. member of the 1991-1992 OAS Haiti crisis mission. He directed the U.S. aid mission in Haiti from 1977 to 1979. He is the author of "Who Prospers?" and "Underdevelopment is a State of Mind."


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