REVIEW: Article

United States Foreign Policy in Haiti: A Study in Failure

American “Operation Restore Democracy” in Haiti has failed.

The blame for failure must be shared both by Haiti and the United States (US). For Haiti’s part, a popularly elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose return to power as the country’s legitimate chief of state we engineered, is now encouraging techniques of political assassination, terrorism, and election tampering to ensure his return to power.

All independent observers of the May 21, 2000, legislative elections agree that the process was flawed, resulting in an overwhelming victory for ex-President Aristide’s Lavalas Party. In the next round of elections on November 26, 2000, Haitians are scheduled to vote for the President and a number of additional seats in the legislature. However, because of the flawed election process in May, the major parties in opposition to Lavalas have decided to boycott the November elections. This virtually guarantees that Aristide will be re-elected and the legislature will be dominated by his Lavalas Party. In this connection, Leon Manus, president of Haiti’s independent election commission, fled to the United States after receiving death threats for refusing to validate the May election results.

After the May elections, Haiti’s present President, Rene Preval, dissolved the legislature and has ruled by decree. Preval is generally accepted as being a puppet for Aristide. For our part, these tainted elections have cost the United States about $23 million to print ballots, set up polling places, and train election workers. 

Meanwhile, the already impoverished Haitian economy has continued its further downward spiral to the desperation of the poorest population in the Western Hemisphere. At the beginning of September, a 44 percent increase in gas and kerosene prices was announced. The Haitian currency (the gourde) has fallen from 7.5 to the dollar to 21 to the dollar. Bus fares and school fees have also increased, resulting in large numbers of schoolchildren being unable to attend school. All of this is taking place in a country of eight million people where the average yearly income is around $250 to $400.

Further compounding Haiti’s economic problems is the threat of the country’s major donor nations—the United States, France, and Canada—to suspend all foreign aid because of the fraudulent elections. So far, the government of President Preval, such as it is, has not reacted in any constructive way to this threat.

From the Haitian perspective, the situation in that country is so bad that, recently, a group of New York-based supporters of deposed former Haitian President-for-Life, Jean-Claude Duvalier, opened an office from which they are calling for Duvalier’s return to power. Most of these Duvalier loyalists are friends and former associates of the deposed President and of Emmanuel (“Toto”) Constant, ex-leader of the Haitian terrorist organization known by the acronym FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti).

Seemingly helpless to prevent Haiti’s slide back into dictatorship, United States foreign policy makers appear to have put Haiti on the back burner while they concentrate on such matters as the political crisis in Yugoslavia and the resurgent conflict in the Middle East. This is our government’s position despite the fact of the geographical proximity of the Caribbean—a historically American sphere of influence where we have played a significant role in creating the political climate that currently exists. 

Our Cuban embargo has almost destroyed Cuba’s economy while Castro continues secure in his control. Politics in the Dominican Republic is blatantly corrupt. And Puerto Rico experiences periodic political upheaval over issues of statehood, independence, and the US Navy’s continued use of Vieques as a bombing training target. For all their experience with colonialism, the former British, French, and Dutch islands of the Caribbean represent stark contrasts of political stability when compared to the islands and countries in that area under American influence.

The experience of the American government with Haiti since our first invasion and occupation of the country from 1915-1934 has been characterized by failure. That occupation occurred under the pretext of collecting debts owed by the Haitian government to American banks. With the departure of the American Marines in 1934, Haiti has had twelve Presidents none of whom has served out a full term and most of whom functioned in office as virtual dictators, protectors of the interests of the small commercial class, and/or front men for the military elite.

This history gives a special irony to the designation of the United States’ most recent military intervention in Haiti as “Operation Restore Democracy.” At a cost of $2.3 billion, the American military presence in Haiti, lasting six years (1994-2000), was in itself built on the shaky foundation of some conspicuous failures. Chief among those failures is our Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) support of Emmanuel (“Toto”) Constant, head of the Haitian terrorist organization, FRAPH, that murdered and kidnapped hundreds of Haitians, and pillaged at will from 1993-1994, in violation of official US policy at the time.

In December 1994, Constant fled to the United States on a temporary American visa. Arrested here two months later, he spent less than five months in federal prison from which he was released after signing a five-page secret agreement with the US Departments of State and Justice. He presently resides in New York City from which base he periodically gives self-serving interviews to the press.

Especially distressing to American Human Rights activists and to Haitians is the difference in treatment of Haitians attempting to escape economic and political hardship and Cubans doing the same. Briefly, Cuban boat people setting foot on American soil are allowed to stay in our country while Haitians in the same situation are summarily sent back to Haiti. Haitians, American civil rights and human rights advocates, and foreign observers latch on to this difference in treatment as evidence of American racism. 

Viewed from the vantage point of the world community of nations, failed American foreign policy in Haiti is just a continuation of a legacy of a foreign policy in the Caribbean Basin that has rarely had positive results either for the region or for US national interests. The examples of this pattern of failure include support for Noriega in Panama that ultimately led to an American military intervention in that country, covert support for the Contras in Nicaragua, US invasion of Grenada, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, unsuccessful attempts to eliminate drug traffic from Colombia, Mexico, and the islands of the Caribbean, a billion dollar government deficit in the US Virgin Islands, and now “Operation Restore Democracy” in Haiti.

This pattern of foreign policy failure, not limited to the Caribbean Basin, is costly to the United States in terms of money as well as costly to US national interests and the US national reputation in the world community of nations. The time has come for a new Administration in Washington to make a review and evaluation of US foreign policy, in the Caribbean Basin and elsewhere, a matter of highest priority. Clearly, some changes are in order with respect to that policy in Haiti.

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United States Ambassador to Algeria, 1977-1981