The Common Good
April 2004

Regime Change in Haiti

by Jim Rice | April 2004

The Bush Doctrine strikes again.

The violent overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in late February should be cause of great concern-not because Aristide was any longer a friend of the poor or a bright shining hope for the people of Haiti. His own arrogant, corrupt, and autocratic ways had pushed him to the brink. But that's not why the Bush administration was happy to push him the rest of the way over the edge.

U.S. forces may not have literally "kidnapped" Aristide and forced him to leave the country at gunpoint, as he claimed. But "call it what you will. The fact is the administration did nothing to save democracy in Haiti," Rep. William D. Delahunt told The Washington Post. And in that, U.S. authorities sent a "dangerous and irresponsible" message to the region that "this administration will not stand up for a democratically elected head of state they do not like," argued Rep. Robert Menendez.

The coup in Haiti, the world's first black independent state, may have been more artfully engineered than the regime change in Iraq, but the Bush team's fingerprints are equally all over it. You don't even have to follow the money. Many of those responsible for Aristide's overthrow have blood splashed all across their résumés, back to the death squads of the 1980s and '90s and the brutal, U.S. backed dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

That history goes a long way to explaining Aristide's failure to solidify democracy or bring about economic development. Even if Aristide had had the stature and moral rectitude of a Nelson Mandela, success would still have been unlikely, given what he faced-U.S. financial and political support for an armed, unprincipled opposition; economic sanctions; a curtailment of much-needed humanitarian aid. It's not hard for an economic behemoth like the United States to ruin the economy of the hemisphere's poorest country.

HAITI'S 2004 COUP, the country's 32nd since it was founded 200 years ago, gave yet more evidence of the real meaning of the "Bush doctrine" of regime change. At heart, it's not about WMDs or human rights or legitimate governance. For the duly elected (albeit flawed) president of Haiti, it came down to: You're on our side, or you're gone. Human rights may be routinely ignored and elite corruption rampant from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, but as long as the countries' leaders are compliant to U.S. interests, nothing else matters. (Hugo Chavez, be forewarned.)

Haiti's deterioration this winter illustrates again the fact that "nation building" is an essential part of the movement from autocracy to democracy. The United States sent 23,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power, following the first time he had been democratically elected and then tossed out in a coup. But, as members of the Clinton administration now admit, the troops didn't stay long enough-they were withdrawn in two years, after building about eight miles of paved roads in Port-au-Prince and not a whole lot else. In the chaos that ensued, little progress was made in building the infrastructure of democratic institutions-grassroots elections for town councils, non-corrupt local police forces, and the like. In the absence of such groundwork, "free and fair" elections are virtually meaningless and the "democratic" results almost certain to be ephemeral. The lessons for occupied Iraq are obvious.

Finally, Aristide's rise and fall raises many challenges for people of faith, even apart from the justice issues surrounding his ouster. Many peace-and-justice minded Christians supported Aristide, the then-Catholic priest who stood up against dictatorship and vowed justice for the poor and oppressed. What's our responsibility when such a person devolves into a autocratic ruler himself? There's a temptation to offer blind support when one of "our own" gets into power-perhaps deafened by the seductive rhetoric of liberation, which often becomes self-serving and deceitful when echoing from the halls of power. (We saw that phenomena in the too-often uncritical support some peace and justice advocates gave to the leftist Nicaraguan government after the downfall of the much-worse, U.S. backed right-wing Somoza regime.)

Our loyalty, ultimately, doesn't obtain to any particular person, party, or institution. Our biblically rooted principles can and must guide us into active involvement in the political struggles of our day, and that will mean at specific times supporting (and opposing) specific candidates and policies. But that cannot mean that we give uncritical allegiance where it is not due-and it is never due to the Caesars of the day, no matter how good we might feel about them or how much we might despise their opponents. Our deepest allegiance must remain, now and always, with God and God alone.

Jim Rice is managing editor of Sojourners.

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