The Haitian crisis

American policy toward Haiti has been a disaster since approximately 1804, when Jefferson, moved by his sympathy with the French government and with slavery as an institution, refused to recognize the Toussaint L’Ouverture government that had kicked out the French. Summaries of subsequent events here and here. Roughly speaking, Haitian politics ever since has been a struggle between a large peasantry, mostly of pure or mostly pure African ancestry, and a small ruling class composed mostly of Haitians of mixed race.

Bill Clinton’s decision to support the restoration of the elected President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (posing as the savior of the peasants), against the remnants of the Duvalier regime’s Tontons Macoutes (“bogeymen”) and their sponsors in the landowning class, seemed like a good idea at the time, but Aristide managed to make it look like a bad idea in retrospect. [Hard to tell, of course; the alternative might have been worse, though it wouldn’t be easy to imagine anything worse than the current situation, unless it’s the likely situation a month from now.] At least restoring Aristide stopped the flow of refugees into Florida.

It wasn’t entirely unreasonable for the Bush Administration to sympathize with the opposition to Aristide, who didn’t care to test his popular support in an honest set of legislative elections. Still, there was a good case for leaving bad enough alone, especially if backing the opposition meant giving political control of Haiti back to the hereditary landowning class.

I’d be happier if there were some evidence that anyone around the President had thought this through to the end-game that seems to be happening about now, or even given any thoght to the situation beyond “Aristide is a Marxist and was supported by Bill Clinton, therefore anyone opposed to him is a friend of ours.”

True, Aristide is a disaster. But is there any plausible replacement who would be less of a disaster?

The decision to support the opposition seems to have been a somewhat absent-minded one. No steps were taken to ensure that the more-or-less respectable political opposition — a bad enough collection, in all conscience — rather than the armed gangs, would wind up in control once Aristide had been booted.

And the position of the U.S. government has been remarkably unclear and unstable. First we more or less openly supported the opposition in its demand that Aristide step down. Then a week ago Colin Powell announced that Aristide ought to be allowed to finish his term. Then yesterday Colin Powell announced that he ought to think about leaving, after all. Weren’t we promised that Amateur Hour in American foreign policy would be over when the Clintons left 1600 Penn.?

So, if Mr. Bush and his advisors can be induced to take a moment’s rest from raising campaign money and telling horror-movie stories about John Kerry, here’s something for them to think about:

— Do we have a plan to prevent a recurrence of a situation in which thousands of Haitians risk their lives in open boats, headed for Florida, to get away from the thugs?

— And if not, what are we planning to do when the boats start coming?

Once the refugees start to pour in, there’s no really good option.

Letting them settle in Florida would greatly annoy the Floridians, something I doubt the President wants to risk.

We could send them back, of course, but we’d wind up with blood on our hands, unless the behavior of the groups about to regain power turns out to be radically different from their behavior ten years ago. (The notion that the Haitian refugees were merely “economic” rather than “political” is rather hard to square with the radical diminution in refugee flows since Aristide’s restoration.)

Intern them once they arrive? Send them to Guantanamo?

Not a decent option in the bunch.

That suggests to me that the refugee flow has to be stopped before it starts, which means tamping down the violence, which means sending troops. Whose troops? Under whose auspices? Search me, boss. But I hope someone at State or the NSC is thinking hard about those questions right now.

Update: Unfair Witness mentions, but doesn’t link to, an AP story reporting that more than 500 fleeing Haitians were “repatriated” to riot-torn Port-au-Prince just yesterday. [Also reported by Reuters].

Makes you sorta proud to be an American, doesn’t it? Our government wasn’t content to simply sponsor a nice, healthy civil war; it makes sure that the potential victims stay around to enjoy it.

Now that’s what I call follow-through.

Update Well, he’s gone. No loss, except that what follows could well be worse. And, as Beautiful Horizons notes, there’s nothing cheerful about the hemispheric pattern of a return to government-by-coup.

Daniel Drezner has more, including a long excerpt from a Chicago Trib piece with some of the unpleasant particulars about the drug dealers and death-squad operators our government just helped seize power from the drug dealers and riot leaders around Aristide.

Oh, yes. Roger Noriega of Jesse Helms’s staff and Otto Reich of Iran-Contra fame appear to have been the two key policymakers. Apparently Reich now serves as the Bush Administration’s designated Western Hemispher coup-plotter.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “The Haitian crisis”

  1. "Repatriation" = Left on the Dock in Haiti

    Mark Kleiman posts about the Bush administration's Un-Policy for the situation in Haiti. I'd just like to make one point about his otherwise excellent post.

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