February 27, 2004
While Haiti has been disintegrating into anarchy - what is going on now could hardly even be described as civil war - the major Western powers have been dithering. The situation has now deteriorated to a point where, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, President Aristide should step down simply in order to avert large-scale blood-letting.
The French, so far, seem to be the only ones to have recognized this. They have, of course, couched their statements in language which blames Mr Aristide for what has happened. However, in fairness it should be said that while he must take a large measure of responsibility for events, he is far from being the only 'guilty' party. If the Haitian President has played his cards badly, it is also true that he was dealt a hand in the first place which would cause most players to fold. And the US, so reluctant to act in an election year, has also made its not inconsiderable contribution to the current fiasco.
President Aristide himself has asked for foreign intervention, and has warned of massive bloodshed, particularly in the sprawling Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil, with its 500,000 inhabitants, who scrape out an existence in conditions of indescribable poverty. This is the heartland of Mr Aristide's support, from where his Chimeres (Monsters) - the armed thugs who have been enforcing his regime - have been recruited. He is surely not misjudging the situation when he warns that this area will be a target of the rebels who will massacre in an effort to eradicate the Chimeres.
President Aristide's request for foreign intervention, however, is premised on the assumption that he will remain in office. The US, in particular, is insisting that a political solution be forthcoming before any peace-keeping force enters Haiti. To date, the agreement brokered by the US, OAS and Caricom with the President, sees Mr Aristide remaining, but with diminished powers and a broad-based government. It has been rejected by the opposition, and is not likely to be accepted now, given that the rebels have control of such large swathes of the country. At the point of writing, Mr Aristide was showing no inclination to indulge the opposition by stepping aside, although if the US and/or the UN were to join France in its call, it remains to be seen what he might do.
The problem is that at a political level the opposition has nothing to offer Haiti either. A loose association of political parties, civil society, trade unions, business associations, etc, it goes under the name of 'Group of 184,' a title which captures its most obvious disadvantage. Add to that the fact that some of its driving force comes from the old ruling class of Haiti, which is hardly noted for its empathy with the nation's poor, as well as members of the business class, among whom are numbered people suspected of funding the armed rebels. The opposition as a group, of course, has strenuously denied any links to the gunmen, and has stated openly that it does not support their methods. While that is undoubtedly true for many of its members, it has not prevented the group as a whole from engaging in a dangerous political game in which it seeks to gain negotiating leverage from the rebel advances.
And as for the rebels themselves, no one seems to know how many there are, although yesterday their leader, Guy Philippe, was reported as telling western news agencies that the total had reached 5,000. This is no doubt an exaggeration, although it is true that former members of Haiti's disbanded military, which had intimate associations with narcotics trafficking, have been emerging from the woodwork to join their colleagues. Given their military training, President Aristide's militias would probably be overrun. Whether they would be or not, however, is not the point; the point is that either way there would be major bloodshed if the rebels go into Port-au-Prince.
Yesterday Secretary of State Colin Powell told the media that there had to be a "constitutional" approach in dealing with Haiti. What this means in the context of a failed state, which, it might be added, is also close to being a narco-state, is not altogether clear. In fact, the state, let alone democracy, had little chance of evolving even following the US intervention in 1994. No massive reconstruction programme was put in place for the country; there were insufficient functioning institutions to support a viable open society; and most of all, the new police force, poorly equipped, underpaid, and corrupted by the drugs trade, could not hope to maintain law and order. In the end, Mr Aristide reverted to the time-honoured methods of his predecessors - armed thugs.
As things stand, President Aristide is in power as a consequence of a flawed election in 2000. The situation is not, therefore, equivalent to the one in 1994, when he was reinstated on the basis of a free and fair poll expressing the will of the Haitian people. The proposal put forward by Foreign Minister de Villepin of France, envisages a civilian international police force being sent to Haiti, humanitarian aid for the country, new presidential elections under a transitional government of national unity and a reconstruction programme. While the devil may lie in the details of the French proposals, at this point in Haiti's history, this seems like the only game in town. For the sake of his people, one can only hope that President Aristide thinks so too.