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Haiti Debacle Cries for Intervention : Democratic Community Must Give Voters Alternative to Guns

December 03, 1987|BRIAN ATWOOD | Brian Atwood is the president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington.

Policy-makers around the hemisphere are this week considering their options for dealing with a military government in Haiti that has sabotaged an election fervently desired by its own people. The policy alternatives can become clear only after a realistic analysis of what caused this aborted election.

I was the co-leader, with former Prime Minister George C. Price of Belize, of an international observer delegation to the Haitian elections, sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Our group of 30 men and women from 12 nations represented the full ideological spectrum, yet we had little trouble developing a strong consensus view of what happened.

Most prominent in our minds was the commitment of the Haitian people to vote. Before the 6 a.m. opening of the polls the lines began to form. In many cases 500 voters, the maximum registered for a polling station, were already in line at the opening.

Only a few hours later some would be massacred and thousands shot at in a systematic effort to either kill them indiscriminately or scare them away. Our lasting impression will be of those who courageously picked themselves up after the first volley of gunfire to return defiantly to the voting line.

Some governments, evidently including our own, want to describe the Haitian government as simply being too passive in failing to protect and facilitate the electoral process. The growing evidence of complicity between the military and the terrorists is dismissed with the rationale that these were isolated incidents involving individuals--as in, "Every police force has its bad elements."

It may be diplomatically convenient to see the situation this way in order to retain some relationship, and some leverage, with the Haitian government. The cost is a total loss of credibility with a Haitian people who will one day prevail over the thugs.

The evidence that the Haitian government actively planned to sabotage the election may be circumstantial, but it is both overwhelming and utterly persuasive. Military vehicles were seen accompanying the hit squads. Military and police officials fired at defenseless voters, journalists and observers (one of our groups was fired on by a police officer). We were not permitted to fly to remote areas to observe the election. The election council was not permitted to use available helicopters to fly voting materials to the provinces. Roads out of the capital were blocked by thugs and military personnel working together. Police and military personnel stood by or participated in the burning of ballots and voting places on election eve. Adding all this up, it is difficult to picture the government as being merely "passive."

Our government is now urging this same group of officials to make good on a hollow promise to conduct a fair election before Feb. 7, 1988, when a constitutionally elected government is supposed to take over. This is a waste of effort. Even if these malicious conspirators were to see a vision on the road to Damascus, the Haitian people would not participate in an election run by government leader Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy and his cohorts.

The real fear that the international community ought now to have is that, once burned, the Haitian people may resort to bullets to remove the Duvalierists and give up on ballots.

It is too early to conclude that these courageous voters who braved gunshots to re-form their voting lines have given up on democracy. Their political institutions may be weak, and they themselves may be uneducated, but clearly they like the notion that they as individuals can make a free choice. This is a time for the community of democracies to come to their assistance.

The diplomatic pressure should be on Namphy to step aside in favor of a provisional civilian government that will conduct a credible election. If he refuses, as expected, then the Organization of American States should urgently consider a peacekeeping force that will respond to the humanitarian need of the Haitian people for protection under a rule of law, and to the need for a secure environment within which to conduct a free, fair and open election.

Military intervention is a politically charged issue in Latin America, but in the case of Haiti it takes on a different cast. One of our institute's Latin American delegates, who opposed the invasion of Grenada and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, said: "There is interventionism, and there is interventionism; the Haitian people will welcome a multinational peacekeeping force with flowers."

This election day will live in infamy in the minds of Haitians. The new reality created by that tragedy cannot be ignored as the options are considered. We can use the techniques of traditional diplomacy and try to negotiate with the discredited government. Such an approach will not head off the revolt of people who want a new Haiti, but it will convince them that the international community was on the wrong side when it really counted. Or we can treat Haiti as the special case that it is and begin now to create an active, hemisphere-wide policy of escalating pressure, possibly culminating with a positive response to a request by the Haitian people to send a peacekeeping force.

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