Albion Monitor /News

Washington Scrambles as Worries About Haiti Grow

by Jim Lobe

Fears that Haiti will unravel on every front
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Question: In what country is the political situation so worrisome that President Bill Clinton has dispatched his Secretary of State and his former National Security Adviser there on separate trips in the past six weeks?

No, not the Congo, and not Mexico, Israel, South Korea or any other Third World hot spot which has been in the headlines in recent weeks.

The answer is Haiti which three years after 22,000 U.S. troops helped restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has quietly risen toward the top of Washington's foreign policy agenda.

The reason: the Clinton administration is increasingly worried that a six-month-old political stalemate in the Caribbean nation threatens the semblance of stability which has prevailed in Haiti since the U.S-led U.N. intervention in late 1994.

"They desperately want a political solution," notes Rachel Neild, a veteran Haiti-watcher at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights lobby here. "Their main concern is that Haiti will unravel on every front."

Pressure from U.S. conservatives to withdraw while military coup threatens
That concern has mounted due to several recent developments, not including the stalemate in Port-au-Prince which has prevented the installation of a new prime minister since June 9.

First, the U.S. Coast Guard last month intercepted a wooden vessel bearing 417 poor Haitians less than ten miles from Miami. That was almost three times the total number of Haitians picked up by the Coast Guard during the previous ten months.

"Of course, we have to be concerned that this may be the first wave of a new exodus from Haiti," says one administration official.

Two days later, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Ben Gilman, joined his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jesse Helms, in calling for the withdrawal from Haiti of some 400 U.S. troops who are there ostensibly to protect 100 military engineers.

"It is past time for our troops to come home," wrote Gilman.

"Having those troops there has been the ultimate insurance policy against a coup attempt or some violent event that destabilizes the government" of President Rene Preval, says Jim Morrell, an analyst at the Center for International Policy (CIP) here. "Gilman's move has got to concern the Clinton administration."

The third event was the Nov. 30 withdrawal of 1,200 U.N. peacekeepers, the last of the intervention force which restored Aristide to power. While Washington was able to convince the United Nations to replace them with a new, 300-member police training group, U.S. officials doubt that the new group can act as effectively as a deterrent to crime and possible attempts at destabilization.

Fears that the situation could collapse if the economic situation worsens and people despair of seeing the tangible improvements in their daily lives that were promised by Aristide and the international community
Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran an article from Port-au-Prince which quoted self-identified Ton-Ton Macoutes as saying they will now to take up arms against the government, although most analysts here agree doubt they have the means to do so.

"I think this is just bravado," says Jocelyn McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York. "There is a lot more criminality now; in fact, common criminals are probably better equipped right now than the Macoutes."

That doesn't lessen the concern of McCalla and other observers. "It could collapse," he says, as the economic situation worsens and people despair of seeing the tangible improvements in their daily lives that were promised by Aristide and the international community.

The World Bank estimates that almost $2 billion of $2.8 billion pledged by bilateral donors and multilateral agencies before Aristide's return have not yet been disbursed. Most of the unspent money has been held up by Preval's failure to implement economic reforms, including the privatization of state enterprises.

The impact of the aid hold-up has been devastating to a nation in which 85 percent of the people live in poverty and two out of every three adults are unemployed. Indeed, much of the population subsists on remittances from relatives living abroad and a large-scale humanitarian aid program sponsored chiefly by Washington.

The economic crisis precipitated by the aid situation has been compounded by the political crisis which stems from a split in the governing Lavalas party between pro-Aristide forces and the Lavalas Political Organization (OPL), which has a majority in the Senate.

The OPL, led by Gerard Pierre-Charles, has refused to install a new prime minister unless last April's elections are annulled. Those elections, in which only about five percent of eligible voters cast ballots, saw the Aristide faction, Lavalas Family, pull a majority. But international monitors found widespread irregularities and manipulation in the polling.

Preval, who is widely criticized for a failure of leadership, has tried to get the two factions to settle their differences. The intervention by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake was also designed to forge a compromise that would permit a new prime minister to take office.

Analysts here say that Washington appears to be tilting towards Aristide, who is seen as preparing another presidential bid in 2000.

"The U.N. and the OAS (Organization of American States) simply rejected the April elections," says Morrell, "while the U.S. has tried to finesse it."

At this point, according to WOLA's Neild, Washington appears to be going on the assumption that "no political solution means no economic reform, which means greater economic deterioration, which means boat people."

"The question is how do you stop it from unravelling," she asks. "You do what you can to maintain security by propping up the police; you keep the U.S. soldiers there and get the U.N. police trainers, and you twist arms to get a political settlement."

Many observers consider it ironic that the U.S. should now be looking to Aristide for answers, given his own responsibility for the impasse that has alienated many of those who were his most fervent supporters during his 1991-94 exile. "They're pursuing a person who has done the most to undermine democratic institution-building and economic reform," says one activist.

How the impasse can be broken remains unclear. McCalla says Washington and other donors should focus more on civil society and far less on the government. "They have to go around the government," he says.

CIP's Morrell calls for a "repackaging" of donors' aid proposals and conditions amid stepped-up international efforts at gaining "some minimum consensus among the Lavalas politicians."

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Albion Monitor December 15, 1997 (

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