Haitian Dilemmas Editorial
Stabroek News
February 25, 2004

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Haiti, admitted to Caricom membership after protracted consideration and many misgivings is now a major headache with which Caricom leaders must live, now and into the long future.

In approaching this rapidly mounting crisis in Haiti there could be advantage in this particular moment, when the interests of powerful states outside the Caribbean are being rapidly involved, in trying to understand the international motivations and the moves being made to advance them.

Two foreign ministers, Dominique de Villepin of France and Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, have undertaken consultations and made weighty pronouncements. De Villepin who sprang to international recognition when his major address to the UN Security Council on Iraq evoked a rare ovation, was quick off the mark indicating his government's willingness to send some kind of force into Haiti to maintain the peace. De Villepin stated that he had been consulting with colleagues and that they were of similar mind. The French have demonstrated in Africa a willingness to send troops alone or as part of UN missions to maintain peace in their former colonies. But Haiti is hardly a former colony having wrested its independence almost exactly two centuries ago. However there is the cultural linkage of language, to which the French have always attached the highest importance. But of still greater significance in terms of French vital interests is the perception that if the rebellion in Haiti is allowed to succeed it could encourage insurgencies in their possessions of Martinique and Guadeloupe and perhaps Cayenne. However the French initiative appears at this stage to be predicated on the end of hostilities in Haiti - a situation unlikely to be achieved given the intransigence of the opposition now supported by para-military from the disbanded army and criminal elements, a point to which one will return.

Equally disturbing is that de Villepin makes no mention of whether an intervention would include the OAS and Caricom or for that matter the UN. President Aristide and his Prime Minister in asking for assistance have specifically indicated that it should come through the OAS and Caricom.

Turning to the US position, there are ambiguities. In a Reuters report out of Washington (SN February 11) a senior State Department official said on February 10 that proposals for a resolution of the crisis which were under discussion could involve Aristide's departure from office.

In contrast, Colin Powell after his meeting with some Caricom foreign ministers and the Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham at his press conference on Friday 13 February warned Haiti's opposition against ousting President Aristide. Powell was quoted further as saying that the US will not accept an outcome that illegally attempts to remove the elected President and which was not consistent with the constitution, a position reiterated by Jamaica's Foreign Minister Keith Knight (SN February 14).

The ambiguities and inconsistencies mentioned above may devolve from the following circumstances. It is widely believed that elements in the US administration and Congress have been quietly providing support for Haitian opposition groups, ever since Aristide, who after a coup had been restored to power by the US invasion, had subsequently adopted an anti-US stance and moved away from an original commitment to a market economy. Indeed US Ambassador Freeth who is known to exercise powerful influence in shaping Haitian policy in a recent BBC Caribbean Report had stated that they had an interest in certain groups in the opposition. On the other hand there is Powell's public stance against regime change. Powell's public stance doubtlessly derives from deep foreign policy concerns with political trends in Latin America where two regimes which were supportive of the US administration and market economy policies (the so-called Washington Consensus) had been removed by revolt. The first was President de la Rua of Argentina who had to be plucked from the roof of his palace by helicopter and flown into exile in the face of violent street protests. The second and more recent was the removal last October of Bolivia's recently elected President de Lozada after a month-long revolt of that country's Indian majority. De Lozada was known to favour the terms and conditions on which US corporations proposed to exploit Bolivia's natural resources. In short, whatever uneasiness the US may have about Aristide they must not be seen to condone the unconstitutional removal of governments, many of whom may be friendly to the US.

Another determinant of Powell's public stance against unconstitutional regime change is the US commitment to enforcing the Inter-American Democratic Charter which has in fact become a dominant element in US foreign policy towards Latin America. Powell was in Lima, Peru on 9/11 where he persuaded the OAS General Assembly to adopt the treaty by acclamation and without debate. The critics of the charter maintain that its language is dangerously ambiguous and might be construed as providing a right to intervention. However it is contended that its main interest is to preserve and strengthen representative democracy in particular against attempted coups or when the democratic process is at risk.

Those are some of the factors which in all likelihood have determined Colin Powell's public stance. What is happening is that Powell has since gone on record as insisting that security forces (SN February 18) should be sent in only after violence abates.

Canada has apparently taken a similar position. Canada has a large Haitian immigrant community in Quebec. Moreover Canada sees Haiti as part of the Francophone group of countries with which Canada identifies.

Both the US State Dept and the Canadian Foreign Ministry must know that asking for a cessation of violence is asking for the impossible. Aristide disbanded the army when he returned to office after the coup. His small police force, poorly trained and armed and largely indisciplined, cannot cope with or disarm the insurgents who have taken over several northern cities and which include in their numbers gangs but increasingly ex-military from the disbanded army which had staged the coup against Aristide. In addition, the opposition elements mainly in Port-au-Prince, the capital city show up to now no willingness to modify their intransigence, insisting that they will not negotiate until Aristide resigns.

Powell has now stated that the US will accept a settlement in which Aristide steps aside. Apparently on a Canadian initiative, a delegation consisting of ministers and officials from the US, Canada and France together with two Caricom foreign ministers Keith Knight of Jamaica and Fred Mitchell of The Bahamas and representatives of the OAS visited Haiti last weekend. The main objective was to ensure that Aristide implemented in particular two important Caricom proposals: namely the appointment of a broad-based advisory council and a new Prime Minister who commands the confidence of the opposition. It is reported that Aristide has now accepted the proposals but the opposition has refused to endorse them, insisting on Aristide's resignation. However even if the mission were to succeed, there is no way in which these new "mechanisms" could work in the rapidly escalating situation of near anarchy. The rebels are getting ready to march on the capital Port-au-Prince.

Caricom must maintain its leadership role. It must act urgently with the new group to find a formula to send in an intervention force including Caricom personnel. At this stage nothing else will avail. The French initiative which it is reported has the support of Canada and Brazil could provide a basis. In connection with such an intervention, Stephen Viascannie, Professor of International Law at UWI (Mona) has argued in an analysis of the earlier intervention by the US that Security Council action apart, the majority view among international jurists of repute is that international law allows military intervention in a State when the government of that State seeks foreign assistance to quell a rebellion or domestic disturbance. (Caribbean Affairs Vol.7 No.6 1997.) Aristide appears to be ready to receive such assistance.

Caricom has already played an important role. It is now imperative to ensure that the outcomes in Haiti, a Caricom member state, will reflect not only the interests of the great powers involved but should be in keeping with Caricom's constitutional values and practice. Caricom leaders should be aware that what happens in one member state may instigate similar action in another.