Haiti: Should the U.S. Go In?

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Resistance Front rebels jump from the back of a van

The Bush administration may soon feel mounting pressure to abandon its "hands-off" position on the mounting chaos in Haiti. That's because the fallout from the evolving civil war in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation could eventually be felt in Florida. Throughout the early 1990s, thousands of refugees made their way to U.S. shores to escape violence and repression in Haiti, and their initial incarceration at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay was an election issue in the Sunshine State in 1992. It was the flow of refugees following the 1991 coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 that eventually prompted the Clinton administration in 1994 to send in the troops.

Some 42 people have been killed in Haiti over the past week in open warfare that has pitched police and Aristide supporters against rebel gangs that have taken control of more than a dozen towns and a large civic opposition movement. The insurrection has sparked a humanitarian crisis by disrupting the distribution of food and clean water, and Florida is bracing for a new exodus of refugees. It's hardly surprising, given the fact that Haiti's economy has ground almost entirely to a halt, as poverty, AIDS and rampaging violence and criminality have reduced life expectancy to an average of around 49 years, that the government is under mounting pressure to quit. The formal political opposition coalition blames Aristide for the chaos: They have never accepted the results of legislative elections in 2000 that were deemed fraudulent by international monitors, and they boycotted that year's presidential election that saw Aristide reelected. Although the election was certified as clean by observers, three quarters of the electorate stayed away from the polls.

The fear that Aristide plans to steal this year's legislative election and set himself up for a third presidential term led opposition supporters to begin holding mass demonstrations late last year to demand his ouster. Some of those turned violent in the face of harsh police action, and at the same time gangs of armed thugs began attacking police and Aristide supporters. Some of these gangs claim to be remnants of militias allegedly organized by the president to defend himself against previous coup attempts; others are believed to be led by remnants of the Haitian military and security forces disbanded by the president after the junta they brought to power was ousted by U.S. intervention in 1994.

While the formal opposition has tried to distance itself from the armed gangs that are now fighting Haitian police for control of whole cities, Aristide's supporters see no such distinction. They brand the whole opposition movement as an attempt to turn back the clock by the Haitian elite that had flourished for decades under the vicious Duvalier dictatorships.

Although the Bush administration has little sympathy for the populist priest who has rallied supporters with an appeal to class politics, he remains the country's democratically elected president. And the U.S. is committed to the agreement among the member states of the Organization of American States that the ballot box remains the only legitimate means of changing governments in the region. Moreover, the patterns of the current violence suggest that although he faces substantial opposition, Aristide still retains significant popular support.

The fact that both the opposition and Aristide himself appear to wield significant support has prompted Haiti's Caribbean neighbors, and the U.S., to insist that the two sides find a political solution. But while they have for years criticized Aristide's refusal to accommodate his political opponents, outside observers are also critical of the opposition's insistence that no negotiations can be held before Aristide steps down. The resulting standoff has prevented any political solution, and the current wave of violence has made prospects for an accord even more remote.

At the same time, however, neither side appears able to decisively impose its authority by force, leaving Haiti in an increasingly brutal deadlock. The U.S. has insisted, however, that it has no plans to intervene. The State Department has called for dramatic changes in how Haiti is governed, but stopped short of demanding Aristide's ouster. The immediate danger, however, is that the violence creates a power vacuum. The rebellion has amply demonstrated the limits of Aristide's authority, leaving considerable doubt over whether his police force is capable of restoring order. Still, it's not clear whether any alternative leadership can stabilize the situation. If the gangs are indeed beyond the control of the political opposition, as opposition leaders maintain, then any new leadership may struggle to wrest control of the streets from warlords. The danger of a slide into anarchy may bring greater pressure on both the government and the opposition to negotiate a compromise. But even as Haiti's Caribbean neighbors press both sides on a new political formula, they may be looking for help from the only power in the region credibly capable of projecting authority.