Haitian Wheels Continue to Spin

Article excerpt

IN THE ARTICLE I WROTE LAST YEAR FOR Inroads ("Haiti: The Island's Wounded Wing," Inroads 13, Summer/Fall 2003), I concluded that "Haiti is mired in the worst kind of poverty, spinning its wheels." By contrast, the neighbouring Dominican Republic has made impressive progress over recent decades. Again to quote myself, "It would fly in the face of every trading nation's interests to sit back and let the weight of Haitian poverty crush the Dominican progress."

Since I wrote that article, Haitian political wheels have continued to spin - and have dug in deeper. In March of this year an armed rebellion toppled President JeanBertrand Aristide. What should the international community - by which I mean the United Nations and, in particular, the United States, France and Canada - do now? The answer can be found by looking at what it did the last time it intervened in Haiti. The lesson is obvious: there is no quick fix.

In 1994, UN troops took over from 20,000 Americans who had just pushed out the military dictator, Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cedras. Then they escorted back Aristide, who had fled in 1991 after a coup. It was a hopeful time. Aristide, once a priest, was the first fairly elected leader in the nation's 190-year history. He talked like a visionary - a man of the people. He seemed obsessed with the need to be honest and fair.

Canada was involved big-time with Aristide's return. Our foreign affairs minister of the day, André Quellet, flew with him to Haiti in a show of solidarity. Canada donated 50,000 shovels - a modest but practical gift to farm families that had nearly starved during a three-year trade embargo imposed by the U.S., France and others to put pressure on the military dictator. We also reopened schools and hospitals. Our soldiers patrolled the streets, with colleagues from Jamaica, Bangladesh and a dozen other countries. And 100 Mounties helped out, keeping an eye on the work of those deemed to be the best of the old regime's police officers, who were allowed to stay on the job, while training recruits for what was to be Haiti's first honest and professional police force. Indeed, reform of all aspects of Haiti's corrupt, dysfunctional justice system became Canada's focus for the nearly three years we stayed.

It didn't take a lot of effort then to maintain order. It was a time before drug thugs turned Haiti into a major transshipment point, and there were few weapons around. Besides, order was something most Haitians craved. Though Aristide asked the UN troops to leave, they were made to feel welcome by most of the people.

In 1997, the Canadians and their UN colleagues decided to go home. Aristide's dark side began to surface. He led Haiti down a slippery slope of political corruption. By last year, his government had the shameful distinction of being ranked the third most corrupt in the world by Transparency International. He and the Chimères, his armed supporters, embraced violence, intimidation and fraud as political tools to maintain power. All of the reforms launched by Canada and its UN partners fell apart.

The lesson to draw from this failure is that Canada and other countries pulled out before they finished the job. Prime Minister Paul Martin understands as much. Speaking last March, he said, "The international community left Haiti prematurely, and we saw what happened. The international community must not make that mistake again. And Canada is going to stay there and make sure this does not happen."

But there is no sign that the PM means what he says. Indeed, Canada's contingent of 450 soldiers is only half what we sent in 1994, and they are to stay only three months. Although Martin has committed Canada to a year's involvement, officials in Ottawa are already making excuses about not having enough troops to replace the 450 when their tour is up - though we may send some a few months later.

If the 1994 intervention was too little and too short to do lasting good, what does Martin expect to accomplish with a much flimsier effort this time? …