by Kevin Y. Kim
In These Times magazine,
Haiti celebrates its 200th anniversary
in January. But the majority of citizens of the Westem Hemisphere's
second-oldest democracy still face shorter lives, subsist on less
than $1 a day, and struggle, jobless, in a country sliding toward
disorder, isolation and permanent penury.
"Haiti's verged on crisis more times
than I can count," says Merrie Archer, human rights director
for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "This past
year alone, it's courted catastrophe any number of times, yet
reaches the brink and pulls back again and again."
In 2000, the country held legislative
elections partly challenged by international monitors who quit
the country without overseeing the presidential reelection of
populist firebrand JeanBertrand Aristide. Since then, Haiti has
been stuck in political gridlock, unleashing a cycle of violence
that has left the hands of government partisans, opposition figures
and lawless thugs equally bloodied.
On October 26, a girl riding a bicycle
in the northem town of Gonaives died from a stray bullet during
an attack by antigovemment forces on a police station. One month
later, Aristide partisans fired on a crowd of protesters outside
a courthouse in Petit-Goave, wounding a 2-year-old. As Haiti's
political crisis worsens, such tragic events increasingly become
everyday incidents-in the past two months, violent demonstrations
have left at least 15 dead and dozens wounded.
Critical independent reporting in Haiti
largely has disappeared. Since 2000, about 30 Haitian joumalists
have gone into exile. The murder of its most prominent, outspoken
joumalist Jean Dominique, remains unsolved in the burgeoning docket
of a judiciary powerless to stop spreading human rights abuses.
Already 146th in the world in human development and the poorest
country in the Americas, Haiti is the region's secondmost dangerous
country for joumalists, according to the U.S.-based Committee
to Protect Joumalists.
The growing crisis coincides with Aristide's
long-delayed promise to hold elections in November and December.
Not only are Haiti's peace and development at stake, but more
than $500 million in foreign aid frozen by the intemational community
in response to the 2000 elections-including millions of dollars
in direct U.S. aid to the Haitian govemment, which direly needs
to bolster its democratic institutions.
Many observers, including U.S. offficials,
regard Aristide's ability to conduct free and fair elections pivotal
to Haiti's problems and future intemational support. But that
narrow focus ignores the inability of the recently formed Haitian
National Police (HNP) to ensure safe elections that include the
political opposition. After a promising start under U.N. auspices,
the HNP's abandonment by a fickle intemational community in the
mid-'9Os led to its corruption and politicization by competing
"I'm not sure Aristide has total
control of the country," says Robert Maguire, a former State
Department staffer and leading Haiti expert. "There are deeply
ingrained political habits in Haiti that, if not Aristide himself,
then many around him have fallen captive to." Louis Joinet,
a recent U.N. envoy to Haiti, has reported that the HNP is demoralized
by its inability to enforce significant rule of law, with some
high-ranking offficers simply quitting.
Unsurprisingly, as of press time the Haitian
government had yet to announce an elections timetable. Instead
of taking tension-reducing steps within its power, Aristide's
govemment seems content to muddle through for now. Either way,
it's unclear if Aristide can appease an intransigent opposition-partly
composed of former authoritarian and elitist elements with disturbing
ties to the Intemational Republican Institute, a D.C.-based advocacy
group influential in Bush administration circles. Unlike Aristide,
the opposition lacks popular support and seems more bent on ousting
Aristide and destabilizing Haiti than reaching any electoral compromise.
"The govemment and opposition need
to put their money where their mouths are and come up with a viable
program for the country," Archer says.
After three years of an inconsistent,
hands-off approach leaving Haiti policy strongly driven by special
interests, the Bush administration is showing signs of a closer
engagement with Haiti that could facilitate a much-needed breakthrough.
Recent bilateral cooperation over narcotrafficking and refugee
migration-two of Washington's primary concems-has led the Bush
administration to reiterate U.S. support for Aristide, appoint
a high-level envoy to study the ongoing crisis and approve $202
million in multilateral loans.
But simply giving aid, shunning Aristide
or holding rushed, one-sided elections are unlikely to stem Haiti's
downward spiral. Equal, sustained pressure must be brought by
the U.S.-led intemational community against Aristide and the opposition
to finally put Haiti's suffering people ahead of their mutually
"Aristide's no devil, but no angel
either," Maguire says. "But instead of Bush's past estrangement
policy or Clinton's soft love stance, we need a tough love policy
holding everyone accountable."
Kevin Y. Kim is a writer in New York.