A race against time The View from Europe
by David Jessop (Executive Director of the Caribbean Council for Europe)
Stabroek News
February 29, 2004

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As this is being written, France, Canada and other nations including the United States are trying to engineer the departure of the Haitian President, Jean Bertrand Aristide and insert a multinational United Nations-backed peacekeeping force into the republic.

Their objective is to achieve this before the less than coherent gangs of dubiously financed and led young men offering support to the opposition, reach the capital. The hope of these nations is that an intervention will enable the country to prepare for fresh elections in which opposition parties committed to democracy can eventually come to power. It is a delicate balancing act that requires ensuring any intervention takes place after the elected head of government departs and before those who would bring chaos or terror can take control of the capital.

The position taken by France and others is different to that of the English-speaking Caribbean. Caricom had been committed to finding a solution that avoids what might be described as regime change in Haiti. For this reason Caricom had supported solutions that encouraged power sharing or other strictly constitutional approaches of the kind that might apply in any of the democracies of the anglophone Caribbean, arguing that what has happening in Haiti was an internal matter.

On February 26, speaking at the United Nations for Caricom, the Jamaican Foreign Minister, KD Knight, called for the Security Coun-cil to immediately authorise a multinational force to end the violence and restore law and order. Despite this key members including France and the US, which had been working with Caricom made clear they wanted a political settlement before deploying an international force.

Arguing against waiting for a political solution, Mr Knight said that rebel forces that had created anarchy in much of the country were likely to reach the capital Port-au-Prince soon and immediate action was needed. He suggested also that the refugee crisis that would result made the issue one for the international community to resolve rapidly. Only an immediate response, he argued, would safeguard democracy and prevent a humanitarian disaster.

Previously a plan, supported by Caricom called for President Aristide to remain in office with diminished powers and share the government with his political rivals. However, this had been rejected by the Haitian opposition, elements of which see Caricom's relationship with the republic as an interference in the internal affairs of the country. This is a view particularly sharply held by those who believe that President Aristide came to power illegitimately and that the US and groups in the US Congress subsequently foisted the relationship with Caricom on President Aristide against the national interest of the Haitian people.

Supporting the Caribbean position in all of this has been the Rio Group of nations headed by Brazil on the grounds that it is necessary to support the constitutionally elected President of Haiti.

What happens next seems increasingly likely to depend on discussions underway in Paris and at the United Nations aimed at trying to broker an alternative solution to that suggested by Caricom.

If France and it seems the US, have their way, it would most probably result in President Aristide leaving, a civil multinational peace force consisting of troops and para-military police being inserted to restore civil order. Thereafter there would be a transitional government of national unity presided over by a prime minister who would call elections by the summer. The plan also calls for the provision of humanitarian aid and some form of international long-term commitment to the economic and social reconstruction of the country. The UN Security Council it seems would he asked to agree to all such arrangements.

As this is being written, it is clear that elements of this strategy are high risk. The rebels continue to advance towards Port-au-Prince. For the French plans to succeed President Aristide must leave and a government of national unity be put in place before the Haitian capital is taken. It is a race against time. Indeed it may still be that if the rebels cannot be restrained by the opposition parties, then France and others may find themselves pre-emptively having to intervene militarily from bases in and around the region.

The US presidential race, the impact of economic refugees on south Florida, the poor state of Franco/US relations, the future role of the UN, the geo-politics of the Americas and the future stability of the Dominican Republic are all factors now in play in finding a political solution in Haiti. Which is to say nothing of the role being played by the Haitian opposition or those from the Haitian military with unsavoury backgrounds who only recently crossed the border from the Dominican Republic.

In a matter of days it seems there will be a change of government in Haiti and the country will, as has been the case many times before, set off in yet another direction. Irrespective of this, the chance of achieving a lasting stable democratic culture in a country so impoverished seems slim.

The events of the week past may raise questions about the ability of the Caribbean to deliver practical solutions to regional crises. This is unfair. Trying to deliver solutions for Haiti when others outside the region have broader political objectives says more about the way the world now is than point to any failure on the part of the Caribbean. Independence of thought, no matter how morally correct, cannot equate to independence of action if countries are relatively small and there are bigger forces at play.