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A map showing Haiti in relationship to Florida.

On Haiti: dean of the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs talks of Haiti's pas

dean of the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs talks of Haiti's past and present

By Martha Coventry

Haiti's back in the news again. Once more we've seen gun-toting rebels, a dazed populous, and a deposed leader sent abroad--this time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, now parked in Panama after being ousted by a coup on February 29. According to the New York Times, 15 juntas and governments have risen and fallen in Haiti the last 18 years. At the moment, Gérard Latortue is Haiti's prime minister and a multinational force is trying to restore order to the country and help the Latortue government get on its feet.

Eight million people live in Haiti, just 500 miles off the coast of Florida. In 1804, slaves brought in to work the sugar cane fields wrested power from their French masters and founded the country. Today, it's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth. Illness is rampant and one out of three children is malnourished. The environment has been ravaged and there are few ways to make even a meager living for the five million people who live in the villages.

It's easy to dismiss Haiti as "a failed state," a country with no hope of ever rising above internal bickering and outside meddling to stand solidly--even shakily--on its own feet. But J. Brian Atwood, dean of the U's Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, urges us not to give up on Haiti.

Atwood knows the Haiti situation intimately. As administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Clinton years, he visited Haiti many times. He was also the architect of the Clinton administration's Haiti policy and worked closely with Aristide, helping to return him to power after he was first deposed in 1991.

Atwood talked with us recently about Aristide's departure, Haiti's future, and the role the U.S. has played and now needs to play in order to stabilize the country and help it forge a brighter future. What follows are excerpts from that conversation. Editorial clarifications appear in brackets.

America's early intervention

Over the years, Haiti suffered from the Duvalier dictatorships. [Fran├žois ("Papa Doc") and then his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") ruled through intimidation and voodoo terror tactics from 1957 to 1986.] It has also suffered from a great deal of American paternalism, if you will. In the 1920s, we sent Marines in to occupy the country and those Marines stayed there for a couple of decades. And what we did in those days--perhaps not being as aware of development issues as we are, or as we should be, today--was to work with the elite of Haiti and to encourage a small number of families to acquire most of the wealth. In those days, development was thought of as "let's take advantage of your comparative advantage" and Haiti's comparative advantage was that it had a few people that were well educated, and we did everything to reinforce their stature on the island and their economic well-being.

After Baby Doc was overthrown, this was the first ray of light for the poor in Haiti and the U.S. obviously had an interest in seeing whether or not we could encourage an electoral process. I happened to go down there in 1986 with the National Democratic Institute to observe what was to be their first election. I'll never forget it because the Tonton Macoutes [the Duvaliers' private police force] and the military conspired together to shoot at people as they were waiting in line to vote.

A fledgling democracy

The military took over again and it was about 1991 when Haiti was finally able to hold another election. That's the election that chose Aristide [with 80 percent of the vote]--a populist priest, a liberation theologist, a person who was able to respond to the poor because he was of the poor.

Aristide began to govern in a very ineffective way because, while he was a very effective priest, he wasn't a very effective governor. And things started to break down again. There was a military coup d'état that forced Aristide out of the country and he came to the United States.

In 1994, we helped restore Aristide to power and we kept our military there for quite a while. We dismantled their military. We created a police force; we tried very hard to create a judicial system that would work. We did a lot of things. We began spending to the tune of about $100 million a year. We planted trees all over the island. [Ninety percent of the island has been denuded of trees that are burned for charcoal].

The biggest problem [when he returned] was that Aristide really wanted the Haitian constitution to be amended to allow for the three years he spent in the U.S., so he could serve his full five-year term. The Clinton administration disagreed. In retrospect, I think that was bad judgment. Because, basically, he was in power for a little over a year when he came back. He was a highly popular president and then he had to give it up.

Eventually Aristide comes back to power [in 2000] and is elected by an overwhelming majority [75 percent of the vote], just as Clinton is leaving office and Bush is coming in. The Republicans made no secret that they did not like Aristide at all.

Aristide falls

The next time the American people tune in to the story [2004], they see that there are rebel groups operating throughout Haiti. One city after another falls and the rebel group gets to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The U.S. sends in a few Marines to protect its embassy and I believe Aristide said, at the urging of the American and French governments, that he would leave. But as soon as he got out of the country, he accused the United States of participating in a coup.

I cannot believe that the U.S. would have joined forces with these rebels. These are really bad people and we got very nervous that they might take over power... but I think the U.S. administration refused to take action against the rebels by sending in the Marines earlier because they really wanted Aristide out of the country. That was a very dangerous decision. The problem is that Aristide was democratically elected and he has a following. Whether you like him or not, that's not your choice.

Hope for Haiti

I wouldn't give up on Haiti. The spirit of the people-just like the spirit of people anywhere-is indomitable. I think they can come back. They need more than $100 million a year, which is what we were giving them [during the Clinton years] to restore their infrastructure. They need about $1 billion a year to make things happen. If you go to Cap Haitian, which is on the other side if the island from Port-au-Prince, you'll see some of the most interesting French architecture, but it's all in decay. The whole island is in decay and the roads are washed away. You get an isolated village that has some capacity to produce agriculture, but they can't get the food out of the village because there's no road.

I think about Uganda, which had Idi Amin and Milton Obote. These were terrible despotic leaders and they had civil wars and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Uganda was an absolute failed state 20 years ago. Today, it is one of the most successful economies in all of Africa. So a failed state can, in fact, recuperate, but you have to give it the right kind of attention.

Haiti's right off our shore and it seems to me to be a very important place for this reason: there are 8 million people who live there. They're either going to be happy living there, or they're going to try to get to our country in some way, or they are going to be taken over-as many of them already have-by the drug lords. Haiti has become a major route for the drug trafficking that goes on in this hemisphere. If Haiti remains a failed state, who knows what else could happen there? It could become a serious national security issue for the United States.

Haiti's worth investing in. And you can't take an ideological approach to these situations. You have to be there, show them that we might not always agree on the approach to be taken, but generally we're partners in heading in the right direction.