In December 2000, just before a newly elected George Bush took office, former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and I went to see Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti was still in a state of confusion following flawed elections, tarnishing the mandate under which Aristide would return to the presidency.
Already, Jesse Helms had publicly warned Bush that Aristide had surrounded himself with “narco-traffickers, criminals and other anti-democratic forces.”
Helms’ aide, Roger Noriega, slated to become U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), had a visceral hatred of Aristide, whom he frequently derided as a “defrocked psychopath.”
Our message to Aristide was simple: to have a shot at a reasonable relationship with the new Bush team, he had to commit publicly to restore democracy to Haiti and address American concerns about illegal migration, human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
Aristide got it. He quickly wrote to President Clinton and pledged to redress the faults of the flawed elections, bring opposition members into his government, invite the OAS to oversee political negotiations, permit international monitoring of human rights, work out an economic reform package with the IMF and World Bank, and cooperate with the US to stem the flow of boat people and cocaine across the Caribbean to Florida.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Even before Aristide could be tested on his, the Bush administration adopted a policy toward Haiti that can only be described as “malign neglect.”
The administration eliminated the position of Special Haiti coordinator, ceased its resistance to Congressional “holds” that blocked vital development aid, and treated Aristide not as a president but a pariah.
This stance persisted until unrest drove Aristide from office in March 2004, at which time President Bush was only too pleased to dispatch a US military jet to whisk Aristide and his family off to Africa.
With Aristide’s departure, the United States has re-engaged in some positive ways in Haiti, by supporting an international peacekeeping force, providing development and humanitarian aid, expanding anti-drug cooperation, and promoting democracy programs.
There has also been strong engagement from the rest of the region and beyond, including deployment of a large UN peacekeeping mission.
Yet the challenges facing Haiti and its new prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, are immense.
Even before the devastating recent hurricanes, Haiti’s efforts to reduce poverty, create jobs, reform education, and develop infrastructure were showing few results, and food riots toppled the previous government.
New security threats, including a wave of kidnappings and rampant drug trafficking, have overwhelmed the undersized and under-financed Haitian National Police — leading to irresponsible calls to re-establish the notorious Haitian Army. The country’s judicial and penal systems remain a mess, and drug traffickers, organized criminals, gang remnants and corrupt politicians all try to exploit the chaos for their own advantage.
Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain will repeat the arms-length policies of the first years of the Bush Administration.
Both campaigns have acknowledged deep US interests in peace, democracy, and prosperity in Haiti, and have pledged support.
While McCain called for a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Haiti in 1994 and used Helms-like language about Haiti during his 2000 presidential bid, his current position is more nuanced toward engagement.
Given the fear of rising insecurity, such engagement should focus on targeting high crime areas with community development projects to create jobs and improve education and health facilities.
The DEA must cooperate more closely on drug interdiction and US police units should work with the Haitian National Police (HNP) to control the wave of kidnapping.
At the same time, the new Haitian government under Pierre-Louis must demonstrate that it is a credible partner by vetting judges and police to get rid of corrupt officials and human rights abuses.
It must expand support for police in counter-drug, anti-kidnapping and non-lethal crowd control sectors.
And it must engage civil society as a full partner in these efforts.
It has been said that Haitian leaders never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The transition to new administrations in Port-au-Prince and Washington provides yet another chance for cooperation.
Malign neglect or affirmative engagement? The choice is clear.
— Donald Steinberg, deputy president of International Crisis Group, served as the State Department’s Special Haiti Coordinator from 1999-2001.
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