Peace Offer?

With a new sense of urgency, the U.S. government sent a delegation to Haiti this weekend with the task of working out a deal with President Aristide that the opposition would accept. They managed to work out a deal very similar to the one worked out at the CARICOM meeting two weeks ago. That deal never amounted to anything, and this one might face the same fate.

The U.S. is not used to being ignored in Haiti. This country has virtually determined local politics in Haiti for most of the last century. While Haitians must bear some responsibility for their terrible economic problems and the long succession of corrupt dictatorships that have ruled the country, those problems bear the "Made in the USA" label just like the sacks of grain today being looted from warehouses in northern Haiti.

From our perspective as a development organization working in Haiti, the story of Haiti's Creole Pig is powerfully symbolic. Once an important economic asset for thousands of rural Haitian families, this animal met a sad fate in the early 1980s. Fearful of the spread of a swine flu epidemic in the Dominican Republic, the United States Department of Agriculture pressured the Duvalier dictatorship to eradicate the Creole pig throughout Haiti. Washington said "jump" and over 4 million pigs were slaughtered, at a staggering social and economic cost still being paid by Haitian peasants. Today we support a Creole Pig Repopulation Program that seeks to reintroduce a Creole Pig in the northern part of the country.

Then there is the case of food aid to Haiti. In 1997, Grassroots International produced a widely-read report making the case that U.S. food aid was part of a conscious strategy to alter local markets and make Haiti more dependent on imported grain. Who is pointing out the hypocrisy in Washington's statements about Haiti's inability to manage its own economic and political affairs? In important ways, Haitian elites, including the current leadership, have behaved precisely the way the U.S. would have them behave. That makes changing Haiti not a simple matter of "creating democratic institutions."

The latest U.S.-sponsored deal aims to keep Aristide in office, while forcing him to name a new Prime Minister and creating an electoral council that will create the conditions for free and fair elections in 2006. Writing in The Boston Globe of 2/22, Congressman William Delahunt calls for just such an outcome, accompanied by the sustained intervention of the US to make sure that democratic elections occur. We would love to share Mr. Delahunt's sense that represents a way out for Haiti.

Both Aristide and the US may believe that the civic opposition may now accept this deal because they are afraid that the thugs now in control of most of the northern part of the country are ready to move toward Port-au-Prince. It isn't clear who would stop them.

Those armed opposition groups responded to the "peace offer" by burning down the police station and taking over Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city. They don't seem to be in a mood to negotiate with Aristide. By all accounts, the humanitarian situation is getting quite desperate in large areas of the country. CARE, for example, is planning its largest relief operation in Haiti in decades.

While the State Department delegation was in Haiti working out this deal, the home office advised all US citizens to get out of Haiti while there are still commercial flights to take them. That doesn't show a lot of confidence in their own ability to stabilize the situation. At the same time, the Pentagon sent a military team to Port-au-Prince to "review the security situation at the U.S. Embassy." We don't know when a Pentagon team has gone anywhere just to review embassy security procedures.