History haunts US Haiti policy

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The Independent Online
AS THE Haitian crisis deepens and the Clinton administration watches its options dwindle, warnings are increasing about the dangers of invasion. Taking the country would be easy, say critics; getting out again, anything but. The fact is the United States has been this way before: that time it took nearly 20 years to get disentangled.

But signs of impending military action abound. A force of 2,000 Marines is to arrive in Haitian waters this weekend, ostensibly standing by in case American citizens on shore need rapid evacuation. And at the G7 summit of leading industrialised nations in Naples on Friday President Clinton gave his clearest indication yet that military intervention is very much an option.

The problems created by the exodus of Haitian refugees continue to worsen. As an average of 2,400 flee the country in small boats every day, the US capability is being stretched to the limit. Panama's retraction on Thursday of its offer to accept 10,000 refugees has drained Washington's patience further.

But history offers President Clinton a compelling warning against invasion. In 1915, after a succession of brutal coups and counter-coups in Port-au- Prince, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched an expeditionary force of 330 Marines to invade the small state.

The operation was successful - initially. But it was meant to be quick-strike action aimed only at ending the strife (and also preventing occupation by European governments, notably Germany and France, owed large sums by Haiti). The US presence lasted 19 years until withdrawal finally in 1934. Nor was the occupation an easy one. In the first five years, a policy of so-called 'pacification' was imposed to put down periodic resistance. An estimated 2,250- plus Haitians were killed in a series of insurrections.

International opprobrium over the US action was fuelled by suspicions of blatant racial abuses by the American commanders. Among those making the allegations was a British diplomat, RSF Edwards, who suggested that most of the US soldiers deployed to Haiti had been recruited from the South, because they knew best how to 'handle coloured people'.

Communications from the leader of the original expeditionary force, a Colonel Littleton Waller from Virginia, do nothing to dispel the impression. 'I know the nigger and how to handle him,' he wrote to one superior officer. Later, he was to observe: 'There are some fine, well-educated, polished men here but they are real nigs beneath the surface.'

The US withdrawal left Haiti with improved infrastructure and a more centralised political system. The country was subsequently ruled by a series of military-backed regimes that remained beholden to the US. Then in 1957 began the longest period of political 'stability' in Haiti's modern history - the 29-year reign of terror under Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and, from 1971 until 1986, his son Jean-Claude or 'Baby Doc'.

The goal of an invasion today would be to oust Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, and reinstate Jean-Bertrand Aristide as democratically elected leader. But no one in Washington is under any illusion that Haiti's political instability, or the suffering of its masses, can be resolved overnight.