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U.S. Must Not Repeat Past Errors in Haiti

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Today the United States stands poised to send military forces to overthrow the brutal junta currently ruling Haiti. The Defense Department has stripped two U.S. aircraft carriers of their aircraft, cramming them full of invasion forces. The bulk of the landing force is already at sea, stationed just off the coast of Hispaniola. Last weekend American aircraft dropped three million leaflets over Haiti declaring that exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will soon return to power. The Clinton administration has described its military plans in great detail, and President Bill Clinton himself has delivered a televised address to the nation outlining the rationale for the invasion. The actual intervention is expected next week, perhaps after a vote in Congress.

As for the invasion itself, military commentators expect it to be a pushover. Haiti's air force has at most two operating aircraft, and its navy possesses only one boat with a working motor. The army consists of 7,000 men trained only for terrorizing the population. Last week, when a freighter appeared off the coast of southern Haiti, soldiers in the area stripped off their uniforms, threw down their weapons and ran for their lives. Not surprisingly, the U.S. military expects little initial resistance.

As for the home front, the American public currently opposes invasion, but that could change. What should concern the Clinton administration more is that Americans may promptly forget the invasion ever occurred, and few policy makers will then concern themselves with cleaning up the problems that led to the intervention. If that happens, the result will be no better than the outcome of the last U.S. experience in Haiti.

On July 28, 1915, Rear Admiral William B. Caperton received a telegram from the Acting Secretary of the Navy informing him in one paragraph that "State Department desires that American forces be landed Port au Prince. ... Department has ordered U.S.S. Jason with marines Guantanamo, Cuba, proceed immediately Port au Prince. If more forces absolutely necessary wire immediately."

So began the United States' first military escapade in Haiti. Caperton followed his orders to occupy Port-au-Prince, and soon expanded the U.S. occupation throughout the entire country. For the next 20 years, U.S. Marines held Haiti in an attempt to pacify the countryside, protect foreign business interests, and, hopefully, make the tiny nation "safe for democracy."

Sixty years since the end of the occupation, nobody is suggesting repeating that particular episode of American history. But, assuming the United States does go forward with its invasion plans, another occupation will take place. Clinton's planners apparently hope for better success this time around.

There is no doubt that, so far, Clinton's planners have done a far better job preparing for the trials of occupation than did Wilson's. In 1915, the State Department considered that Haiti would immediately accept the rule of a U.S.-picked president, and that no Haitian would doubt the good intentions of even a long American military presence in the country. In 1994, the State Department wants only to re-install a previously elected president whose ouster three years ago by the current junta could never be viewed as legitimate. This time around, the Clinton administration has planned for a U.S. occupation lasting only a few months, to be followed by a somewhat longer stay by a U.S.-dominated and U.S.-led United Nations command. According to these plans, even the international forces would only stay for two years - as opposed to the 20 year occupation earlier this century.

An even greater contrast can be drawn between the problems that led to American intervention in 1915 and the concerns that have brought the Clinton administration to the brink of invasion. In 1915, the State Department primarily concerned itself with protecting the lives of U.S. nationals and the business interests of U.S. corporations operating in Haiti. Specifically, State wanted to keep civil unrest in Haiti from damaging the property of an American railroad. The U.S. also wanted to prevent any Haitian government from defaulting on Haiti's debt. As a secondary objective, U.S. planners hoped to protect the Monroe Doctrine by preventing Haitian naval concessions to European powers.

In contrast to the economic and power-politics aspirations of their predecessors, today's interventionists have an almost entirely humanitarian agenda. They despise the nightly slaughter of defenseless Haitian slum-dwellers. Infants and small children have been a particularly prized target for the so-called "attachs" - rogue youths affiliated with the ruling military. While the vast bulk of Haitians worry about how to survive the daily menu of murder and absolute poverty, Haiti's tiny middle class, which has supported the ruling junta, lives on in a relatively idyllic prosperity. Worse still, U.S. sanctions aimed at bringing down the junta seem to hurt only the poor.

Most of those who have argued about whether to invade have ignored more important questions: If we invaded, what would we do in Haiti? Would we repeat the mistakes made by the Marines 60 years ago? Or would we help rectify them? If we cannot do any better than we did during our first 20 years of occupation, then it seems obvious that intervention in Haiti will serve no other purpose than to give Haitians another temporary reprieve from the killing fields. In order to avoid this, we must first examine the lessons of the first invasion.

When the Marines arrived on the beaches in 1915, they found a nation wracked by constant internecine violence. No political leader could keep his hands on the reigns of government for longer than a few years; the success of one revolt would herald nothing more than the beginning of another. The Haitian people lived in absolute squalor. Their existence was punctuated by violence - class-based violence, and racial violence. Sound familiar?

The Marines confronted this situation by propping up a line of highly unpopular leaders, and then crushing all resistance to the American-sponsored government. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover did sponsor several public works projects in order to ameliorate the economic plight of the Haitian people, but they proved too small to have much impact. Of all the actions taken by the occupation forces, perhaps the most important involved centralizing political and economic power in Port-au-Prince. Having rushed to the city to fill newly created jobs, many Haitians discovered not economic opportunity, but political repression. As its last act before pull-out, the U.S. created the "Garde d'Haiti". Designed to prevent anarchy, the Garde and its successors served as an organ of repression for a long line of Haitian despots. The military that propped up the Duvaliers and that now supports General Cedras is descended from the force created by the United States.

There are two lessons to be learned here. The first is the most obvious: Anyone who says the U.S. has no responsibility for the current problems in Haiti is dead wrong. While the U.S. did not find a peaceful, stable, or prosperous country when it invaded in 1915, when we pulled out we left a centralized national structure bent on political repression - the same structure that President Bill Clinton wants to destroy today.

The second lesson Americans must learn is to pay more attention to U.S.-created problems. Our government has a long history of "nation-building." Sometimes our efforts have seen success, such as in Japan and Europe after the Second World War and in Korea after 1953. More often, as in Lebanon, Panama and Somalia, not to mention Haiti in 1915, the United States makes a mess of the bad situation it finds.

The remedy for this failure is not to ignore the problems we have created, but rather the opposite. Our history has proven that, with adequate care and attention, we can help the cause of stable and prosperous democracies. It is sometimes necessary to send U.S. troops to nations where we have messed up, but the determining factor in our success or failure is not whether or not we send troops. What makes for our success where we have been successful is a combination of sustained political and economic support for the people left in the wake of our landing craft. If we are going to send troops, we had better be prepared to give the Haitian people enough money and political organization in order to make their democracy viable. History will soon tell whether the American people and their leaders are capable of bearing that burden.