By JESSICA LEIGHT and LARRY BIRNS
In the eight months since the abrupt resignation, under U.S. pressure, of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, the country has witnessed a steadily escalating level of chaos and lawlessness under interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. Such violence raises fundamental questions about the Haitian government's ability to survive, much less retain any domestic or international legitimacy, outside the Washington offices of the U.S. policymakers, who hand-picked it, and those at the OAS and UN who today routinely, even automatically, support Washington's highly skewed vision for the island one dominated by an anti-Aristide motif. Even for a country with a history of political instability and violent shifts of power, the absence of effective authority and the presence of a brutal faction of demobilized soldiers has driven Haiti to the threshold of volatility usually associated with failed states such as Somalia, Liberia and Afghanistan.
So far, the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH has been grossly unsuccessful in halting the erosion of central authority, and its stabilization is likely to fail entirely without the arrival of promised new major troop units, the embrace of a more aggressive role aimed at disarming armed factions, and a dramatic increase in pressure by the UN, and Washington, on the Latortue government to restore order. The interim government is currently presiding over a regime of human rights violations comparable, if not more severe, than those perpetrated by the widely denounced 1991 1994 military junta. All Secretary of State Colin Powell has had to offer at this point are unsubstantiated, far-flung charges against Aristide for fomenting violence in the country, which are comparable in their quality of scholarship to his contribution to the Iraq debate.Economic Deterioration
It is important to note that in a number of crucial respects, economic and political conditions in Haiti are even more dire than there were during the military junta of the early 1990's. At approximately 80 percent, unemployment is higher today than during the military rule because of the shrinking of Haiti's export sector, as a result of international sanctions first put into effect from 1991-94 and the extensive looting that occurred earlier this year after Aristide's departure. Rural destitution is even more acute, exacerbated by widespread deforestation that has left only two percent of Haiti's arboreal cover standing and has produced widespread land degradation, which intensified the flooding that devastated southwest Haiti in May and June, and later sacked Gonaives as a result of Tropical Storm Jeanne. Neither the Bush administration nor the UN have criticized the gross incompetence of the Latortue government in either preparing for or later dealing with Jeanne. One can only imagine the fierce criticism that would have been visited upon Aristide if he or one of his Lavalas colleagues were in office at this time. A Land Without Plenty
The country's already meager agricultural output has been further damaged by the government's termination of fertilizer subsidies and the flooding of the Artibonite Valley region, Haiti's historic breadbasket. Declining production and import bottlenecks have sent rice prices skyrocketing, which has led to serious increases in malnutrition and infant mortality. Moreover, population migrations, a climate of virtual impunity among the country's venal officials and increased violence, particularly of a sexual nature perpetrated by ex-soldiers and other armed factions, are expected to exacerbate the country's already serious HIV/AIDS epidemic. The fight against HIV/AIDS, spearheaded by the Aristide government, has been severely jeopardized by the ongoing instability. Equally dangerous is the possibility of outbreaks of other infectious diseases among the thousands of flood victims from Gonaives that continue to be housed in squalid and unsanitary conditions, generating a crisis that is certain to rapidly overwhelm Haiti's frail healthcare system and meager resources.Spiraling Violence, Intensifying Human Rights Abuses
Given the severity of the humanitarian crisis, a surge in refugees trying to reach the Dominican Republic and Florida is inevitable, and is expected to be particularly severe if the continuous violence between ex-soldiers and Aristide supporters, which has wracked Port-au-Prince since September 30 and taken more than 80 lives, continues to intensify. While some of Latortue's officers have attempted to negotiate the demobilization of ex-soldiers or their incorporation into the police, the military faction led by Remissanthe Ravix has shown no signs of acquiescence. On the contrary, as long as the government continues to ignore their outrageous demands to reconstitute and provide back pay for the ten years since the military's dissolution in 1995, the ex-soldiers will continue to exert pressure on the hapless Latortue through armed takeovers of small towns, particularly in Haiti's central plateau. The poorly-trained and demoralized National Police already has demonstrated that it lacks the capacity and will to confront the well-armed and well-organized ex-soldiers, and it is clear that the police will be completely unable to maintain security if the already tense situation escalates.
As bands of former soldiers freely wreak havoc across the country, the Latortue government has been at the forefront of an appallingly violent campaign of repression against Aristide's political allies and supporters, unleashing a wave of arbitrary arrests and unexplained killings in the overwhelmingly pro-Aristide slums. Such human rights violations and abuses of constitutional norms have gone completely ignored. Epitomizing the situation is the fact that a notoriously reprehensible figure like Bernard Gousse holds the portfolio of Minister of Justice despite his utter disregard for law and morality. The government invariably justifies its raids as either searches for illegal guns (although a recent "arms search" in the poor and pro-Aristide neighborhood of Bel-Air on October 6 produced seventy-five illegal arrests but no weapons) or as hunts for Latortue-designated "terrorists," defined as anyone thinking, planning or somehow linked to others thinking of violence. The government, outrageously enough, has also recently arrested and illegally detained a number of high-profile supporters of Aristide's Lavalas party, including two highly-respected legislators ,Senator Yvon Feillé and former Deputy Rudy Hérivaux, nine members of the Confederation of Haitian Workers and leading advocates of non-violence, like Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste. These victims of Latortue's and Gousse's current reign of terror are in addition to the officials of the Aristide government, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert and former Delegate Jacques Mathier, who disgracefully have been imprisoned without any charges for months.Latortue government internationally condemned
Though the U.S. and the UN have been appallingly slow in condemning the abuses perpetrated by the government that it put in power, other members of the international community have become increasingly vocal in denouncing the Latortue government for what it is: an illegally installed, repressive and undemocratic cabal with scant respect for the rule of law in Haiti. The OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement expressing concern "over several key areas in which the basic rights and freedoms of Haiti remain weak and imperiled," while Amnesty International has declared that "illegal and arbitrary arrests" continue in Haiti and has named Rev. Jean-Juste a prisoner of conscience. Renan Hedouville, director of the Lawyer's Committee for Individual Rights, has denounced the government before the OAS for making arrests without warrants and holding suspects without charges for longer than forty-eight hours, while also reporting that there have been widespread accusations that women and girls have been raped by ex-soldiers, a practice tragically reminiscent of the 1991-1994 coup period, where such acts of sexual violence were frequent and almost always went unpunished.
In perhaps the most important international condemnation of the interim government, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) voted once again on November 9 to postpone the restoration of normal ties with the Latortue administration, stating that there will be "no compromise on the fundamental principles of respect for human rights, due process and good governance." If Barbados' Prime Minister Owen Seymour Arthur and Grenada's Prime Minister Keith Mitchell had no qualms of conscious in attempting to win Washington's goodwill by being Judas to Haiti's precarious situation, the same was not true for Guyana's doughty President Bharrat Jagdeo and St. Lucia's Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, both of whom took highly principled stands on Haiti's status. The latter directly called on the Latortue government to put a "stop to the harassment of the political opposition," in a clear reference to the campaign of repression that it has waged against Lavalas supporters.
Haiti's failure to regain its seat in the Caribbean organization has been an ongoing embarrassment to the Latortue government, and is particularly important given the persistent relunctance of the UN and the OAS to stand up to pressure from Washington and openly denounce the current regime's abuses being committed on the island. The CARICOM meeting concluded with a commitment to work with other Latin American countries, led by Brazil, to facilitate dialogue among the political factions in Haiti. Hopefully this promised cooperation materializes and the rest of the hemisphere, under the possible auspices of the OAS, takes a more active role in protecting basic human rights and the rapid restoration of democracy in Haiti.MINUSTAH: An Opportunity Squandered
While MINUSTAH may well represent the best hope for averting the collapse of the current Haitian government, it continues to be debilitated by an under-fulfillment of pledged troop contributions, a phenomenon that reflects a long-standing trend in UN peacekeeping: the assigned forces are chronically under quota, their mission is too narrowly defined, and is authorized for too brief a period, with donors' pledges frequently not materializing. The World Bank has estimated Haiti's reconstruction needs over the next two years to top $1.3 billion, and a separate emergency appeal for $35 million was subsequently made to fund post-flood rebuilding and allocate relief over the next six months. Currently, $1.1 billion has been pledged, approximately 85 percent of the total, but funds can be expected to arrive slowly, if at all, and may be curtailed if the widespread instability which threatens the integrity of the reconstruction process persists.
Resource constraints notwithstanding, MINUSTAH also has demonstrated a shocking lack of political will in confronting the root causes of the spiraling violence, and systematically has attempted to avoid potentially dangerous high-profile engagements. In addition, MINUSTAH leaders have taken a notably complacent approach towards the Latortue government's appalling human rights record not only have MINUSTAH commanders and the UN special representative to Haiti failed to vigorously denounce that record, the force has at times provided a supporting role for illegal government arrests and other actions that violate the rule of law.
In the arena of disarmament, UN military commanders have declared that their mission cannot and will not include the containment of armed gangs, despite the fact that its original mandate was to establish conditions of basic stability to pave the way for new elections. Such a declaration at a time when armed factions threaten the integrity of the Haitian state, demonstrate a stunning degree of disengagement from the country's political realities. In the absence of a renewed commitment of political will and a promise to expand the force's mandate, even an increase in troops will be unsuccessful in reinvigorating MINUSTAH. Without such a commitment, which has been woefully absent in past attempts to institutionalize democracy in Haiti, a serious risk exists that the central authority will continue to crumble and that the Latortue regime will continue to be a Mickey Mouse government- smug, arrogant and lawless. This façade of legitimate authority will bring about an unimaginably perilous crisis, further discrediting the UN's already feeble efforts and triggering a new surge of "boat people" towards Florida.
It is essential that the UN and particularly the Security Council nations immediately provide MINUSTAH with sufficient troops to reach its mandated level and separate itself from the Latortue regime, which now must be deemed as a failure that requires replacement rather than reform. The length of the force's stay should also be extended to at least one year and longer if possible, and its mission more robustly interpreted to encompass disarming the armed factions that are intimidating Latortue's rule. Additionally, there is an urgent need for the Security Council and the US to make one final effort to pressure the Latortue government to abandon its attempt at rapprochement with the former military faction, immediately end its campaign of illegal arrests, halt its persecution of former Lavalas party members and bring to trial known perpetrators of human rights abuses, including its Minister of Justice.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington should take a leading role in ensuring that Haiti receives promised international contributions. Only such a long-term pledge has the potential to break the cycle of repression, disintegration and deepening poverty that Haiti so frequently has suffered in the past, and continues to suffer to this day.Jessica Leight is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.http://www.coha.org/