Ouster of Haiti's president understood
Early last week, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide bowed to increasing pressure from rebels and political opponents in his island nation and fled to the safety of the Central African Republic. This decision followed three weeks of mounting violence and a deteriorating national political situation.
This dramatic conclusion to the Aristide presidency, however, didn't bring an end to the controversy. Almost immediately, accusations began, ranging from the circumstances under which he left the country to why the United States did not become more involved in preserving the democratically-elected government in Haiti. Some critics have even argued the Bush administration in some respects was responsible. In this respect, some background on this situation is necessary to fully understand this situation.
The recent events in Haiti are actually the culmination of a long series which began during the previous U.S. administration in the early 1990s. These events taken in sum represent the dramatic failures of Mr. Aristide and his government.
President Aristide's political career began in 1983, when he returned to his home in Haiti for his ordination as a Catholic parish priest following two years of study overseas.
Over the next seven years, he became a vocal opponent of the regime of then-President Duvalier, and his political activism ultimately resulted in his being elected president of Haiti in December 1990 as the candidate of the Lavalas Party. Less than twelve months later, however, he was overthrown by a military coup and lived in exile for three years. Aristide was returned to power in late-1994 with the assistance of a multi-national military force. This force was led by 20,000 members of the United States armed forces sent to Haiti by President Clinton in an action known as Operation Uphold Democracy.
Following the term of Rene Preval, who was elected in 1996, Mr. Aristide was re-elected president in 2000. The results of that election have been contested since that time and, together with the rampant poverty, corruption, and crime in that nation resulted in the recent uprising against the Aristide administration.
The question for many remains, "Why did Aristide need to go?" For many years, international observers and human rights groups have carefully watched events in Haiti, and their findings offer some important information on the causes of this recent revolt.
One of the most important points involves democratic elections in Haiti. In 1995, the Clinton administration provided the Haitian government with $1.3 million in financial assistance to ensure fair and accurate election practices. This election, held at the end of Aristide's first term at a time when he was barred from running for consecutive terms, resulted in only five percent turnout nationally and lacked many elements of a full, competitive election.
Additionally, outside election observers noted several other major irregularities including the burning of ballots in many rural areas.
While this election did not mark the return of Mr. Aristide to the presidency (resulting instead in Mr. Preval's election; Mr. Aristide was prohibited by the Constitution from running for consecutive terms), it established a history of election irregularities which continued through Mr. Aristide's second election in 2000.
Haiti also has a long record of human rights and security violations. The government of that country has not fully complied with international regulations regarding the trafficking of children for both labor and sexual exploitation. As one major example, a 2003 report issued by the Organization of American States stated that between 90,000 and 300,000 children between the ages of four and 14 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are used as unpaid domestic labor. Additionally, following a 2001 announcement of "zero tolerance" policy towards suspected criminals, the Haitian police and organized mobs committed numerous executions and lynchings. The national media was forced to self-censor itself, and many reporters either fled the country as the result of death threats or were captured and executed.
According to a report issued by the United States Department of State in 2003, Haiti has also become a major stop-over point for illegal shipments of cocaine and other narcotics from South America to the United States. It has been reported that at least six members of the Aristide government were denied visas to travel to the U.S. because of suspected involvement in the drug trade. Mr. Aristide himself, who has denied any direct involvement in narcotics trafficking, has done little to stop the flow of drugs through his nation. Ironically, proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs are suspected of being used to fund the recent anti-Aristide insurgency in Haiti.
The failure of Aristide to give up his seat and leave the country would almost certainly have resulted in greater bloodshed and further corruption. The problems facing Haiti still remain, and it will be quite some time before the government and population of that country have returned to the road towards true democracy. However, the end of the Aristide government should result in the end of many of the abuses of power and human rights violations that have plagued that nation for many years.
As the Palm Beach Post stated, "The U.S. gave Mr. Aristide an opportunity in 1994. More importantly, Haitian voters gave him an opportunity in 2000. Mr. Aristide is in exile because he squandered that opportunity."