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Reconciling the irreconcilable: The Troubled Outlook for U.S. Policy toward Haiti

Authored by Dr. Gabriel Marcella, Dr. Donald E. Schulz. | March 1994

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This study examines the socioeconomic and political dimensions of the Haitian crisis and the attempts by the United States and the international community to resolve that crisis. The authors assess the prospects for restoring the deposed Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the difficulties that will attend any effort to promote sustained political and economic development. Specific criticisms are made of U.S./international community policy, options are evaluated, and recommendations are set forth. Among the major conclusions and recommendations are the following:

Lessons and Implications.

International sanctions have been a failure. They have further devastated the Haitian economy without restoring President Aristide. The Organization of American States (OAS) and U.N. embargoes have accelerated environmental damage, contributing to near-famine conditions in some areas and causing (in conjunction with other factors) extreme hardship for ordinary Haitians while only belatedly touching the elite. Indeed, many of the latter have grown richer through smuggling and drug-running operations.

U.S. policy has been marked by confusing actions that have sent the wrong signals and are interpreted by Haitians as indecisive. Haitian leaders have concluded that Washington can be manipulated and outmaneuvered. Consequently, they have sought to stretch out negotiations and prolong the crisis expecting that the United States and the international community will back down rather than inflict unacceptable suffering on ordinary Haitians.

The July 1993 Governors Island Agreement to restore Aristide was inherently unworkable. By providing for the lifting of sanctions before Aristide returned and at a time when General Cedras, Colonel Fran├žois and their allies still occupied key positions of power, the accord enabled the latter to obtain short-term relief while they restocked supplies and protected foreign financial holdings in preparation for the longer struggle to come. Moreover, the agreement had no enforcement mechanism beyond the threat to reimpose sanctions. The foreign military and police that were in the process of being introduced were trainers, engineers, and observers rather than peacekeepers or peace-enforcers. They were lightly armed and operated under inadequate rules of engagement. Nor was there any provision for purging the Haitian military and police of corrupt or abusive elements. Under such circumstances, it was unlikely that "training" would have much effect. Indeed, the signals that were sent were interpreted to mean that the international community was not serious and that the accord could be sabotaged with minimum risk or cost.

In Haiti, the international community has been dealing mainly with thugs rather than military officers. And what thugs understand is power. One has to use it in a way that will be credible, keeping in mind that a failure to apply leverage will be interpreted as weakness and will encourage further recalcitrant behavior.

The United States and the international community cannot create democracy in Haiti. Only Haitians can do that. But for that to happen, there would have to be a transformation of the political culture. The restoration of Aristide would only be the first step. Far more difficult would be the creation of professional military and police forces that would be reasonably competent and subordinate to civilian control. Equally important would be the construction of an effective and fair judicial system. This would require a substantial, ongoing U.S. and international effort. U.N. peace-enforcers would have to be introduced to provide political stability and security for all sides. Haitian troops and police would have to be vetted and human rights offenders removed. U.S. and other foreign sponsors would have to provide much of the human infrastructure that would assure that humanitarian and development aid would be used effectively. A major, long-term educational and training program would be necessary to enable Haitians to acquire the skills and values that would gradually enable them to replace foreign personnel.

Even if such a program were launched, there are no guarantees that it would succeed. Cultures are hard to change, and one must be prepared for considerably less than optimum results. In addition, some Haitians will resent a large-scale, indefinite foreign presence, no matter how well-intentioned. If international forces should become involved in Haitian domestic politics--as seems likely--the stage would be set for a nationalistic backlash.

Nevertheless, to do much less would constrain the prospects for success. The current crisis can be alleviated through a massive, short-term humanitarian effort. But unless the international community--and especially the United States--is willing to stay the course, one must expect Haiti to again descend into chaos or tyranny once the foreigners pull out.

Policy Options.

Some version of the Governors Island Agreement, which would provide for foreign military and police observers, trainers, and engineers, but not peacekeepers. While this may be the most probable course of action, its prospects for success are not good. Even if Aristide can be restored--no sure thing-- without a substantial number of international peace-enforcers and a strong, reliable security force, his longevity could not be expected to be great. Assassination is a possibility, and it might plunge the country into massive violence.

A second option, military intervention, is often dismissed as "unthinkable." It should not be, for there are circumstances that might produce such a scenario. The possibilities here range from a full-scale occupation (for which the will does not presently exist) to a limited intervention (much more likely). In either case, the international commitment would have to be ongoing to be successful. The temptation will be to try to do the job "on the cheap." The smaller the commitment and the shorter the duration, the greater the chance of failure. On the other hand, a "success" is problematic in any event. A limited commitment would minimize the risks and costs.

Another variant of the military option is a nonpermissive humanitarian intervention. The problem is that unless the basic causes of the crisis are eliminated, it is likely to reemerge once the peace-enforcers leave. A real solution would require an extended foreign presence and the disarming of those elements responsible for the crisis. The pitfalls of such an operation are evident in the U.N. operation in Somalia.

Still another possibility is a nonmilitary humanitarian option (permissive humanitarian intervention). The international community is already engaged in such an effort through nongovernmental organizations. This might be expanded even as sanctions are tightened. If successful, a permissive intervention would ameliorate the immediate humanitarian crisis. But it would not address the larger political problem or long-range socioeconomic needs. The Haitian military, moreover, might well refuse to allow such deliveries, or might seize or siphon off these resources. Only if the expanded operation were to be accompanied by substantial concessions would the military be likely to cooperate.

Finally is the option of disengagement. The international community could accept defeat and lift the sanctions on the grounds that they are unacceptably destructive. This would do nothing to address the fundamental problems of the society. It would consign the vast majority of Haitians to oppression and poverty and deprive them of hope for the future. Pressures to emigrate would continue. The United States would be faced with a choice of indefinitely continuing forcible repatriation, with all its objectionable moral overtones and economic costs, or suspending it and inviting a sharp increase in boat people. At the same time, there would be significant political costs to such a policy change. Critics would denounce it as a sell-out of democracy and a capitulation to thuggery. The credibility of the Clinton administration, the United States, and the United Nations would be damaged.


This is a terrible menu of options. For that reason, the United States and the international community have taken the least painful course of action. But that tactic has now come up against the limitations of reality, and hard choices have to be made. Rather than trying more of the same (which no longer seems feasible, given the humanitarian implications) or disengagement (which would abandon the Haitian people to their tormentors) or invasion (which has little political support), the United States and the international community should get serious about sanctions.

  • A worldwide U.N. embargo, enforced by warships of the United States and other interested nations, should be placed on all trade and aid except for food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods and services. Sanctions should be targeted much more heavily on Haitian military and civilian elites than in the past. This means striking not only at the very top of the armed forces, but at the officer corps as a whole. Such measures (for instance, the seizure of foreign financial assets, the denial of visas, and the restriction of air traffic) should also be applied more broadly against the economic elite. The object is to create and aggravate divisions and provide the motivation for dissidents to challenge the power and policies of the current leadership.

Such moves would send the Haitian military and its allies a powerful message and go a long way toward restoring the credibility of the United States and the international community. They might bring the Haitian military into line fairly quickly, since they would coincide with the depletion of the country's fuel reserves. But then again, nothing is guaranteed. In any case, they would accelerate an already serious humanitarian crisis. To avert a disaster on the ground, therefore, humanitarian aid should be rapidly expanded:

  • A "humanitarian corridor" should be opened to ensure that the most essential human needs are met and guard against the misuse of aid.
  • Should the Haitian military refuse to allow this, it should be put on notice that obstructionism and violence will not be tolerated. The United States and the international community must be prepared to back this up by stationing a sizable contingent of appropriately armed U.N. guards to protect the operation. Haitian military leaders should be told that (1) they will be held personally responsible for any violence, (2) that perpetrators of such actions will be subject to prosecution under international laws dealing with the gross violation of human rights, and (3) that should a full-scale intervention be required, the Haitian armed forces would be dissolved.

Such a strategy contains very real risks and costs. It would not end Haiti's problems or U.S. and other foreign involvement in them. The country would need massive development aid for the foreseeable future. Some peacekeeping presence wouldalmost certainly be necessary. But this course at least offers the hope that the country's grave socioeconomic and political ills might be seriously addressed. Under such circumstances, it might be possible to reduce human rights abuses and normalize migration. (The latter being by far the most important national interest that the United States has in Haiti.) If successful, the strategy would enable the United States to reclaim the moral high ground and restore some of its currently tattered reputation as a Great Power. It would also replace a policy of indecision with one of consistency, while allowing the U.S. Government to fulfill its obligations to those Haitians whom it encouraged to risk their lives and who now feel abandoned.