Better Clinton than Cedras: The US might yet succeed in Haiti where it failed in Somalia, argues Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn
Monday 10 October 1994 23:02

AS THE Haitian army commander, Raoul Cedras, stepped down yesterday, President Bill Clinton moved closer to his first real foreign policy success. By the end of the week President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, overthrown in a military coup three years ago, will return.

Instead of the body-bags predicted by Mr Clinton's critics, just one man among the 20,000 United States troops in Haiti has been wounded. Their experience so far is closer to that of the American armies liberating France in 1944 than the intervention in Somalia a year ago.

The main reason for the success of US intervention is that ordinary Haitians regarded General Cedras and his military regime much as the French regarded the Gestapo. Haiti was never a divided society - or rather, the division was between a tiny elite and the impoverished mass.

'Since American helicopters started flying overhead, we can sleep at night without fear of being murdered,' said one farmer, standing beside the road in the depths of the Haitian countryside.

One day last week I visited an isolated town called La Bastille in the mountains east of Port-au-Prince, where no American troops had been seen. The local police commandant - one of the so-called chefs de sections who rule rural Haiti like medieval barons - was presiding over the local market, backed by armed soldiers and paramilitary aides.

Just as he was saying to me that all was peaceful, the crowd of several thousand farmers erupted, shouting: 'Aristide] Aristide] Aristide]' The demonstrators produced old posters - heavily creased as if they had been folded very small for concealment - of Aristide's face, and waved them frantically.

It is this detestation of the old regime - despite all the efforts of General Cedras and his chief of staff, General Philippe Biamby to play the nationalist card - which is preventing a nationalist backlash of the kind that consumed the US intervention in Somalia in 1993 and Lebanon in 1983. On the gatepost of General Biamby's house in Port-au-Prince a poster shows an eagle's claws hovering over a map of Haiti; but most Haitians, even when they are cynical about American motives, prefer an American eagle to the Haitian death squads.

A second reason why the US has been so successful is that, even by Central American standards, the Haitian military and civil elite has always been very dependent on the US. One Haitian pointed out that other countries in the region have at least one decent hospital, used by rich; but Haiti has not even that, because the elite always took a plane to Miami for medical treatment.

The military leadership was also very close to the US; most trained at US military academies. Over the past three years, General Cedras believed he had enough covert supporters in the Pentagon, CIA and other institutions to prevent an invasion. A memo leaked to the press in the spring showed that the US embassy considered President Aristide as much of a threat as the military regime that overthrew him.

And Emmanuel Constant, the Haitian paramilitary leader who last year inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Clinton administration when demonstrators forced the USS Harlan County to turn around rather than land training troops on Haitian soil, revealed last week that he had been on the CIA payroll at the time.

That revelation is likely to fuel fears in the Clinton administration that its difficulty in asserting its authority since it came into office is the result of being continually undermined by a permanent government of bureaucratic and political institutions in Washington, which opposes its policies at home and abroad. More publicly, the Republicans have a semi-official policy of proving Mr Clinton ineffectual by denying him any success.

The intensity of the dislike of Mr Clinton in parts of Washington is always surprising. Even after the presidential election, bumper stickers for Bush/Quayle outnumbered by five or six to one those for Clinton/Gore in the Pentagon car park.

Yet in Haiti, as in so many other areas, Mr Clinton's policy was scarcely radical, or even innovative. After criticising George Bush during the presidential campaign for turning back Haitian boat people without a hearing, he flip-flopped just after inauguration, and adopted the same policy himself.

If General Cedras had been more astute, or better advised, he would not have had to step down yesterday. For the first 18 months of Clinton's presidency, the White House wanted a compromise in which President Aristide would return but, in effect, share power with a Haitian military that had been granted an amnesty.

This compromise failed because the regime, with no large social or ethnic group backing it, needed to keep terror as a political weapon. The Haitian military and police are only 7,000 strong, backed by 25,000 to 28,000 paramilitary aides, in a country with a population of 7 million. But the death squads, operating from half-a-dozen police stations, terrorised the capital, ensuring that, after nightfall, you could drive through one of the most crowded cities in the world without seeing a single person.

Mr Clinton was pushed into military action because the Haitian army sabotaged power-sharing. Antoine Izmery, a leading Aristide supporter, was dragged from a church despite the presence of foreign diplomats, and shot in the head. Guy Malary, the justice minister, was machine-gunned to death with his bodyguards outside his ministry. Even then the White House and the State Department tried to push President Aristide into more concessions.

When his old policy was revealed as bankrupt this spring, Mr Clinton came under pressure from the US black caucus to support President Aristide. The renewed outflow of boat people heading for Florida revived Haiti as a political issue. But, also, people at the heart of Washington decision-making - Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot and John Deutch, Deputy Defense Secretary - began to push for an invasion on the grounds that the only alternative to humiliation. Official Washington always feared President Aristide's misty radicalism and liberation theology, but they had no choice other than to restore him.

Washington's ambivalence about President Aristide is similar to its attitude to General Charles de Gaulle 50 years ago. It fears his independence but cannot do without him. The only serious danger for President Clinton lies in trying to clip President Aristide's wings by preserving large parts of the old regime to counterbalance his popularity. That will disappoint the expectation of ordinary Haitians that the day of the death squads is over.

(Photograph omitted)

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