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Aristide's fatal restoration

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAITI AGAIN has forced itself on a world community that is trying its best to look away.

The Bush administration, embroiled in Iraq, is doing just that. But if history is any guide, it won't hold. Public outrage over the spreading chaos in Haiti and the likelihood that a flood of boat people is not far behind will force the hand of reluctant decision-makers.

Entreaties to the Haitians to resolve their differences peacefully and by themselves ignore reality. The crisis besetting Haiti is deep-seated, the end game of a decade-long failure by the regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to reconcile differences with other political and social forces.

Because peaceful participation in determining their fate has been blocked, thousands of Haitians have taken to the streets to protest government corruption, and increasingly anti-democratic behavior that includes arming and protecting gangs that have intimidated opposition leaders and attacked independent radio stations critical of the government.

Aristide was given every opportunity to live up to proclaimed ideals of democracy and social justice. The United States not only intervened in 1994 with 20,000 troops to put him back in power; it championed a multibillion-dollar relief and development effort that was unprecedented in size and scope for a country the size of Haiti. The U.S. government and other international donors also invested heavily in institutional reforms that failed to take root because the Aristide government was more interested in consolidating its power than building an institutional base that would serve all Haitians.

The Clinton administration soon found that, once back in power, the exiled former priest who had lobbied so strenuously and successfully to get America to invade his homeland played politics as a zero-sum game. Aristide ignored advice to broaden the political base of his government, and gratuitously made enemies by intimidating political opponents. He undermined efforts to professionalize the police by politicizing the hiring and retention of policemen. He turned a deaf ear to the advice of the United States and other international donors to privatize graft-ridden state corporations.

Why? Because they provided lucrative sinecures for cronies who enriched themselves and passed portions of their ill-gotten gains on to the man at the top, who lived like a pasha while the poor got poorer.

Aristide's will to dominate extended to electoral machinery that proved fair and open enough to give him an electoral victory in 1991. Under Aristide later, the electoral commission designated by the Haitian constitution came under attack and its chairman was forced to flee the country. The elections after Aristide's restoration were farcical. International and nongovernmental election observers universally criticized them.

International donors terminated further disbursements of assistance. And the political opposition, having lost all confidence in the corrupted electoral machinery, announced a boycott of future elections. The net effect was to shut down the political process and set the stage for the chaos now spreading throughout Haiti.

Democratic institutions were smothered at the civil society level and Haitians from all walks of life - students, labor union members, religious leaders, the business community and opposition politicians - were forced into the streets. Many of these protesters were once avowed Aristide supporters who cheered Aristide on his return to the presidency in 1994.

Now, they have taken to the streets to demand his resignation. These peaceful protesters, concentrated in the capital, Port au Prince, should be seen as separate and distinct from the armed gangs that have sprung up around the country.

Aristide's apologists have difficulty explaining away the massive, peaceful public demonstrations in Port au Prince and have appealed to the international community for assistance in quelling the civil unrest.

They accuse those who have taken up arms outside the capital of being "coup plotters," knowing full well that many were former government enforcers who saw themselves targeted as scapegoats when the government turned on them.

And how to explain the thousands of Haitians of all political sectors who have taken to the streets? Despair appears to be their prime motivation. Many in the democratic movement find it discomforting that armed groups have taken advantage of the protests to settle their own scores and have publicly denounced the violence. They desperately want a change. Demonstrating against a regime that has been indifferent to their basic needs and political concerns is the only way they can dramatize their cause.

What's next without some sort of international intervention?

The likelihood is more of the same as Haiti descends into anarchy. Less likely, but not to be ruled out, some means may be found to open a political dialogue that charts a peaceful path to the future - a future that does not include Jean Bertrand Aristide in a position of power. He has burned too many bridges to play a future role. He is president in name only. He has the title, but he can't govern. His autocratic governing style and extra-constitutional actions have broken faith with those who elected him and calls into question his legitimacy.

Two peaceful scenarios come to mind:

In one, Aristide would recapture a spark of the nobility that inspired followers in his courageous early years and offer to participate in negotiations to install a provisional government leading to early elections. The understanding would be that Aristide would remain as president during the transition stage but not take part in the elections. He could continue to live in Haiti. Meanwhile, the international community would agree to the stationing of peacekeepers to ensure security during the sensitive transition.

In the second scenario, the international community would negotiate with all parties to the same end (i.e. a transitional government and early elections) and promise to provide peacekeepers if all parties agree.

Both scenarios are long shots, but they offer somewhere to start. The alternative is a steadily deteriorating situation that would give primacy to the gangs with the guns when Aristide either leaves of his own accord or is driven from power. In that case the peacefully inclined, democratic forces would be marginalized and the prospects for peaceful change would be dim, indeed. To avoid that Liberian type ending, the international community with the leadership of the United States had better act quickly and decisively.

Lawrence Pezzullo is a retired Foreign Service officer who was President Bill Clinton's special envoy to Haiti in 1993 and 1994.

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