(IPS) KINGSTON -- Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide has left the Caribbean for South Africa, but the controversy over the way he was spirited out of his beleaguered country remains, and at the center stands the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the grouping of 15 tiny states that dared to stand up to western powers led by the United States.
Since shortly after Aristide's departure, CARICOM has tenaciously called for a probe into his abrupt departure on a U.S.-chartered jet Feb. 29 as violent rebels moved toward the capital Port-au-Prince, despite Washington's obvious wish to have the matter dropped.
Aristide too continues to insist he was kidnapped and did not resign, as U.S. officials maintain. With the passage this week of an Organization of American States (OAS) resolution that could allow for an investigation, CARICOM's position appears to have been vindicated.
On the group's insistence, the resolution invoked Article 20 of the OAS charter, which says, "in the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, any member state or the secretary general may request the immediate convocation of the permanent council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate."
The resolution recognizes there was an alteration of Haiti's constitutional regime when Aristide left the country, Jamaican Foreign Affairs Minister Keith Knight said in an interview with the OAS press office, and which aired on local media.
Knight insists the resolution does not legitimize Haiti's interim administration led by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
"This resolution does not in any way accord recognition to the regime, and in so far as CARICOM is concerned, that issue will be dealt with when the heads (of government) meet in Grenada in July," Knight says.
CARICOM has so far refused to recognize Latortue's government.
But although the OAS resolution could pave the way for CARICOM's investigation, there is not a great deal of optimism the probe will actually materialize.
Former CARICOM diplomat Orlando Marville told the BBC's Caribbean Service the resolution will not affect Latortue's administration. "It doesn't hurt that much because nobody is going to take the OAS position ... that seriously," he said.
Neville Duncan, professor of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, does not expect the probe to happen either. Nevertheless, the very fact that the motion was passed is significant, he says.
"It is another symbolic strike against U.S. exceptionalism ... the U.S. feels no longer part of international protocols and treaties like the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court; this is the way in which the world is getting back," Duncan told IPS.
Duncan says the Aristide issue has pointed to a clear need for a greater voice for small, developing states in international institutions, adding there needs to be "significant revision, dramatic change, to allow more participation by weaker states in the system."
He is also quick to point out that the move to secure this stronger participation has begun.
"The fight has begun, before (last September's World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in) Cancun. Countries of the South, including South American countries and the Caribbean, are doing a good job in raising their voices, so the Caribbean's response to the U.S. is part of this, it's not an oddity," Duncan says.
The OAS resolution is likely to have little effect on any possible return to power by Aristide, but is nevertheless a positive step by the international body, says Larry Birns, director of the U.S.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
"The OAS, when it has depended on the executive action of the secretary general (Cesar Gaviria), has usually resulted in some form of accommodation to Washington, because Gaviria can be seen as the U.S.'s guy," Birns told IPS.
"When the council of the OAS acts as a body, it usually has taken a notably independent stance towards the U.S., so I consider this to be a hopeful sign that the OAS is living up to its responsibility instead of being the lapdog organization that Gaviria has tried to fashion it to be."
But it is the United Nations that has failed Haiti most, suggests Birns.
Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Minister Knowlson Gift last month told a news conference that CARICOM's attempts to have Aristide's ouster dealt with by the United Nations were frustrated by the fact that the UN Security Council, its general assembly and Secretary-General Kofi Annan all had the power to block a probe.
Given that France and the United Stated played a role in Aristide's departure, and both are permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, failure was certain, Gift added.
"Kofi Annan has constantly criticized the West for its indifference to Rwanda, (but) the Secretary-General has acted in a scandalous manner (towards) Haiti," said Birns. "The UN was basically irrelevant when it came to Haiti; it validated what the U.S. has done. When the UN was needed, it simply wasn't there," he added.
An important aspect of the OAS resolution was a call for international assistance in re-building Haiti, an effort in which CARICOM had always intended to participate, says Knight.
The body also urged swift elections in the island state, where UN peacekeepers have begun replacing a U.S.-led multinational force that observers say kept a lid on large-scale violence in the capital Port-au-Prince but failed to disarm the rebels opposed to Aristide, who killed and burned as they swept down from the northern part of the country earlier this year.
Duncan is anxious to see CARICOM begin to engage in significant rebuilding efforts, and concerned with the body's current lack of involvement in Haitian affairs.
"We need to go in and try to reduce the attacks on (Aristide's) Lavalas (Party) leadership and work towards free and fair elections. We need to be there, in a bureaucratic and organizational sense," Duncan says.
Latortue's government has promised polls sometime in 2005. Significantly, the administration does not include members of the Lavalas Party, still popular among the country's poor majority and some of whose members have been arrested for crimes allegedly committed while in power. Other members and those close to Aristide have gone into hiding.
Despite the difficulties that CARICOM is likely to encounter as a result of its stance on Haiti, the grouping deserves commendation, says Birns.
Aristide was flown to the Central African Republic on Feb. 29, where he was kept under tight supervision before Jamaica invited him for a short-term stay. On May 31, he accepted South Africa's invitation to take temporary exile there.
The former president, Haiti's first democratically elected ruler who was overthrown in a coup one year after his 1990 election, says he will remain only until he can return to his country.
"I think that there are very few heroes in this story," says Birns. "One of the true heroes is (Prime Minister) PJ Patterson of Jamaica ... CARICOM countries, in spite of the fact that their economies are precarious and they need the goodwill of Washington, their actions have been heroic and deserve commendation and should be an inspiration to Latin America."
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