Mark Danner

The Price in Haiti

Americans are so devoted to democracy and so respectful of its central ritual that we tend to confuse the one with the other. Call it the Election Day Myth.

Americans are so devoted to democracy and so respectful of its central ritual that we tend to confuse the one with the other. Call it the Election Day Myth. On that charmed day, every citizen, no matter how poor or obscure, is endowed with exactly the same quantum of power as every other citizen, no matter how wealthy or well connected. The myth is beautiful and affecting, and not without truth. But in the absence of institutions through which the elected can govern and the governed can seek justice even the freest election is not enough to make a democracy.

Almost three years ago, on a day of great jubilation, the citizens of the wretched island nation of Haiti lived their own Election Day Myth. Courtesy of hundreds of observers from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, Haitians took part in a free and fair election, in which, as it happened, two Haitians in three cast their ballots for a rousing orator and inspiring leader of the poor named Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since Aristide had won two-thirds of the vote, his mandate to govern might seem to have been overwhelming-were it not that virtually all the Haitians with money and power numbered themselves among the other third. Many of these people, whose families had brutally ruled the country for almost two hundred years, nourished an intense hatred for Aristide, a Catholic priest who made no secret of his determination to rectify the grotesquely skewed distribution of money and power that characterized Haitian society. They feared his wildly enthusiastic supporters in the slums, and they were determined to keep him-by any means necessary-from assuming real authority over the Army.

As Father Aristide took office, there existed a clear potential for disaster-a potential that had been underlined, a month before his inauguration, by an attempted coup d’?tat and, in response, violent rioting by his supporters. Faced with this uncertain situation-and with the strong disinclination of Haitians, who are fiercely nationalistic, to see the international presence extended-the representatives of the international institutions that had made Aristide’s election possible left the country. Thirty-one tumultuous weeks later, after a second, and very bloody, coup d’?tat succeeded, Aristide followed them. That was two years ago. Last week, when the United States troop ship Harlan County, carrying two hundred American “combat engineers and military trainers,” beat an ignominious retreat from the waters off Port-au-Prince, it was only the latest and most embarrassing of a series of failed attempts to restore President Aristide to office. What was most striking about this sad incident was not the glee of the unruly Haitian gunmen celebrating their triumph onshore (a triumph sweetened by Haitian memories of 1915, when American Marines last disembarked at Port-au-Prince for a stay of almost two decades) but, rather, the yawning gap between the stated goal of the mission-“the restoration of democracy in Haiti”-and the means chosen to achieve it: a few engineers and trainers, many of whom did not even carry sidearms, and who were under standing orders, should they encounter trouble in the Haitian capital, to “run the other way.”

Ever since President Aristide’s overthrow, and increasingly since early July, when the so-called Governor’s Island accord was signed (and under which the President was to return to office on October 30th), violence has overwhelmed life in Port-au-Prince: disappearances, kidnappings, mysterious fires, assassinations in broad daylight in full view of the police and the military-all the familiar techniques of street terror that have traditionally been used to impress on Haitians that, no matter what the foreigners say, those who have always held power in their country still hold it. Though the refusal of the Haitian armed forces to protect citizens clearly violated the spirit of the accord, the United States and the United Nations did nothing, preferring to wait hopefully for the arrival of the foreign troops, who, one diplomat said, could be expected to turn the tide because of Haitians’ “awe of foreigners.” And, if that awe proved insufficient, how were these lightly armed foreigners expected to deal with street terror? An unnamed but obviously less hopeful official told the Times that they would “have a narrow mandate to be there and rub off on the police and the army, who magically by osmosis are supposed to behave themselves; to conduct themselves more professionally.”

“To conduct themselves more professionally”: how American, to take a political problem and disguise it as a technical one-as if the difficulty were that the benighted Haitian troops had simply never been informed that their job description did not include the murder of unarmed civilians. Training might well benefit the Haitian soldiers-although it is worth recalling that their predecessors got plenty of training under the Marines, who founded the current Army during the American occupation. But training cannot clear the political impasse, which is that a large number of Haiti’s rich and powerful, fearing (with some reason) the diminution of their privileges and wealth, not only detest but distrust President Aristide and his supporters, and lack the means, the traditions, and the inclination to respond in any way save violently. Even had they been inclined to offer legal opposition, the mediating institutions through which they might have done so-established political parties, a vigorous legislature, a judiciary insulated from the executive power-do not exist. Until they do, talk of “restoring democracy in Haiti” will be little more than a sad farce.

For all President Clinton’s talk of “growing democracies,” no one really knows how such institutions could be developed in Haiti. What is clear is that the Clinton Administration, while setting the lofty goal of democracy in Haiti, has never been willing to make the investment, financial and political, needed to achieve it. One result is that the Governor’s Island accord mandated not only Aristide’s return but also an amnesty for those who overthrew him and then murdered thousands of his supporters. After all, to force a wholesale “housecleaning” in the Haitian military would have required something more than a few hundred lightly armed engineers and trainers.

Even if Father Aristide does one day manage to return to Haiti, the political paradox that led to his downfall will remain. He stands for “the people” in a country in which the people have always had nothing. He is, in essence, a revolutionary, come to office not in the manner of revolutionaries-by sweeping away the old order-but thanks to a foreign-sponsored election that left the system he would overturn firmly in place.

It is not at all clear how, or whether, democracy can be implanted in a place like Haiti. At the weekend, American destroyers were steaming toward Haitian waters-sent by President Clinton to bolster the international sanctions that are supposed, again, to force Haiti’s rulers to adhere to that flawed accord. Perhaps the warships will force concessions; perhaps they will bring more violence. But it is unlikely that they will bring democracy: in Haiti, as elsewhere, that would require of the American people a greater commitment than they, or their leaders, appear ready to make.