WASHINGTON — Washington's long-standing neglect of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere is deteriorating into opportunistic crisis management. As the armed rebellion against Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide escalates and the political crisis there spirals out of control, U.S. policymakers confront a familiar predicament. The State Department hopes history doesn't repeat itself, with boatloads of Haitians suddenly appearing on the doorsteps of South Florida, a potentially embarrassing political development for President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But administration hard-liners are sending "green light" signals that can only embolden an anyone-but-Aristide opposition.
The mounting political violence is symptomatic of the country's disease: a fundamental disagreement between elite-funded civic opposition groups and a popular leader sullied by indiscretions, most notably the blind eye he turns to his supporters' violence. Their mutual enmity, which frustrates diplomats and produces grief for ordinary Haitians, challenges Washington's ability to formulate a constructive policy when it doesn't like the democratically elected leader of a country and shouldn't like the opposition.
If the administration missteps, it could have a Venezuela-like problem on its hands. In April 2002, it was so eager to see the departure of that country's democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez, that it appeared to support a coup attempt. Chavez survived and is stronger today partly because of Washington's gaffe.
Beyond the obvious caveat that the United States should not support extra-constitutional power grabs in foreign countries, the case of Venezuela offers another lesson for Haiti. In Venezuela, U.S. policy used traditional diplomatic levers to pressure elected politicians but left informal political actors -- business, media and civic organizations -- to their own devices. While the informal actors burned the United States because some of them received assistance from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, Washington couldn't effectively control their activities.
What does this all mean for U.S. policy in Haiti? It suggests that undemocratic agendas may be pursued under the guise of "democracy promotion" because the U.S. aid passes only through nongovernmental organizations, some of which are aligned with the anti-Aristide opposition. And as the opposition steps up its violent agitation, the question for U.S. policymakers will be whether politicizing democracy promotion was worth legitimizing unaccountable groups that won't faithfully negotiate with the Caribbean Community or the Organization of American States, bodies that Washington has asked to mediate the crisis. Still, U.S. policymakers shouldn't throw up their hands and let chaos reign in Haiti. What's important to building democracy in countries like Haiti and Venezuela is recognizing to whom private and public sectors are accountable, noting how these groups shape legislative and daily politics, and finding ways to influence both constructively.
On this score, Washington's track record in Haiti over the last decade has been highly erratic. U.S. policy has ranged from noble efforts to restore an overthrown Aristide to power as paramilitary groups terrorized his supporters, to hollow promises of a Marshall Plan in the mid-1990s, to today's cynical Bush policy of cutting development aid to a government it never wanted to succeed. Misgivings about Aristide's political message fueled suspicions in both the Clinton and Bush administrations that leftist liberation theology would take hold in Haiti. And it shouldn't be forgotten that U.S. business and diplomatic ties dating back to the Marines' occupation of the island and throughout the Duvalier family's dictatorial reign sensitized Washington to the wishes of the small mulatto and white Haitian elite that virulently opposed Aristide's rise to power.
This distorted view of Haiti has been the author of many shortsighted policies. Blocking the disbursement of more than $500 million in development funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank at a time when the Haitian government is economically strapped is one such policy. Supporters of the embargo say Aristide played fast and loose with democratic rules in the case of seven disputed parliamentary seats. But they ignore two important facts: Aristide's legitimacy rests on an overwhelming victory in the 2000 presidential elections, and that it is the umbrella civic opposition that has been the principal impediment to restarting the political process.
Surely there exists space for good-faith measures, such as allowing the multilateral banks to provide the embargoed assistance to Haiti. Aristide is no saint. But unlike the fractured opposition, which has failed to rein in its rogue elements, the Haitian president still commands significant popular support and deserves to serve out his term, which ends in 2006. Constructive engagement by the U.S. and the international community with his government is the best guarantee for establishing the modicum of peace necessary to make progress in a nation that has suffered through 30 coup attempts and countless dictators.
But if the violence now contained to the island's northern cities engulfs the entire country, Haitians will not be deterred by the administration's policy of jailing Haitian refugees upon their landing. Unless reversed, U.S. policy could end up abetting the humanitarian crisis it is trying to prevent.