Why Aristide has to finish his term

Posted in Europe , Other | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Eugene Tuttle| Source: International Herald Tribune


VIENNA - At Port-au-Prince Airport, the airline representative checking me in - an acquaintance - offered to seat me next to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then a presidential candidate, or to upgrade me to business class. It was December 1990, weeks before the election, and I was surprised she had not offered an upgrade to the man likely to be her future president. The representative, a charming scion of Haiti's ruling class, leaned forward and said that Aristide would never be her president.

Aristide's leftist anti-American rhetoric had not endeared him to U.S. officials either. But he became Haiti's president, and still is, and the latest U.S.- backed plan to resolve the current turmoil is right in accepting that fact.

On board that Miami-bound flight in 1990, after glancing at the card introducing me as head of the U.S. Embassy's economic/commercial section, Aristide remarked that economics wasn't his forte. His speeches had already made that clear. But he showed surprising pragmatism, repeatedly citing the elimination of corruption as his major economic policy prescription.

Aristide's job credentials were no match for those of Marc Bazan, the World Bank economist whom many Haitians viewed as "the American candidate." Unlike my acquaintance at the check-in counter, however, the U.S. government was determined to recognize whomever Haitians elected president. The U.S. ambassador and embassy officials also worked tirelessly to assure fair elections peacefully secured by the Haitian army. Aristide did not seem totally convinced.

Some in Haiti's ruling business class were apoplectic when, on Ambassador Al Adams's instructions, I gave them the same message I had given Aristide, with the additional warning that there would be serious consequences if they tried to sabotage the elections. "You're not going to allow that madman to become president?" one bitterly responded. The idea that only a clique or the U.S. government should be responsible for Haiti was endemic to the island.

Days after Aristide's overwhelming victory, relations started off well. We met with him and his team over a lengthy breakfast in Ambassador Adams's garden. A surprising number of business people saw a silver lining in the fact that his mandate was so clear - perceiving, as I had, a pragmatic side to Aristide.

The script seemed to have been written by a human rights professional. But even before Aristide's inauguration, there was an attempted coup that some thought the army a tad too slow in suppressing. Aristide was likewise tardy in calming the mobs who retaliated with horrendous violence. The pattern had been set.

The embassy continued its outreach. But Aristide's trust in the mob over the uniformed security forces stiffened resolve among those determined never to accept him as their president. It also strained his relationship with the United States. He resented Adams's protests against political violence by some of his supporters - the same kind of protest the ambassador had previously made to the military government, to Aristide's benefit.

When the military rebelled that September, Adams helped form a human shield to protect Aristide from assassination. Neither such acts nor the U.S. Army's restoring him to office in 1994 overrode his ingrained mistrust.

It is in the U.S. interest that constitutional processes become part of Haiti's political culture, which hitherto produced little more than U.S.-bound refugees. For an elected president to make it through a full term would set an important precedent. Damage to the Constitution through illegitimate parliamentary elections during Aristide's second term cannot justify abandoning his term altogether.

Enforcement cannot depend solely on the U.S. Army, however. A Caribbean force, perhaps led by French troops based in Martinique, could easily chase off the ragtag rebels and stiffen resolve among Haiti's demoralized police.

Outside force could re-establish order and economic activity if accompanied by restored international aid and a provisional body substituting for parliamentary checks and balances until Aristide's term ends in two years. A council of state, representing key social, economic and political groups, oversaw the transition to democracy in 1990 and could do so again.

Such a solution would not please those who never accepted Aristide as their president, but neither would power in the hands of his former mob supporters. Haiti is an ongoing state of emergency. It will not emerge from this until constitutionality becomes part of its culture.

Eugene Tuttle is a retired U.S. foreign service officer.