US Policy toward Haiti Ducks Three Major Issues Should Aristide Run Again? Should Aid Be Tied to Economic Reform? Should UN Troops Stay On?

Article excerpt

PERHAPS more than for any other country in the world, US policy has consequences for Haiti. It was the United States government, one year ago, that engineered President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return after three years of exile. Washington's decisions in the coming months will critically affect the future of Haiti's fledgling democracy.

But partisan wrangling over whether Haiti represents a diplomatic triumph for President Clinton or a tragic misuse of US power has obscured the real issues. With domestic US politics - not US or Haitian interests - driving the debate, the three most crucial questions are being ignored.

The first is whether a formula should be sought to allow Mr. Aristide to seek reelection to a second term, currently barred by the Haitian Constitution. The Clinton administration so far rejects consideration of this notion, insisting that Aristide honor his pledge to step down in December when his term ends. The administration is rightly concerned about the integrity of Haiti's fragile constitutional order, but it also wants to avoid bolstering critics of its policy, who charge Aristide is an aspiring dictator ready to perpetuate himself in power.

Yet, there are advantages to having Aristide run again. Whether he is a committed democrat or not, he remains enormously popular and would win any election hands down. Moreover, despite continuing economic distress, Aristide has succeeded in moderating the rancor and violence that have characterized Haiti's recent history. Many Haitians who bitterly opposed his return now want to keep him in office because no one else appears to have the same capacity to hold the country together.

Recent parliamentary and municipal elections, although hardly models of democratic process, demonstrated that virtually any candidate Aristide designates will win easily. Chances are Aristide will handpick his successor and effectively retain power, but conflict between him and the new president is also possible. The question is whether these options serve democracy better than a transparent initiative to change the Haitian Constitution to allow Aristide to become a candidate. …