Commentary

Haiti: Will We Ever Learn?

Now that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is in exile and his country is — once again — engulfed in chaos, the bureaucrats at the United Nations and the State Department have begun the process of trying to “stabilize” Haiti. “Stabilization,” a word used by both U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, replaced the usual euphemism for a military takeover of a failed state, which is what the Republic of Haiti is.

It would be ironic, even by State Department standards, to say that the United States wants to put Haiti “back on track” to democracy and prosperity. We failed twice before and there is no reason to believe that third time we will be luckier.

The first attempt to transform Haiti into a functioning country dates back to 1915, when an American president, frustrated by Haiti’s endemic instability and civil strife, sent in the Marines. In the 72 years prior to the American takeover, wrote Frances Maclean in Smithsonian Magazine in 1993, Haiti had “102 civil wars, revolutions, insurrections, revolts and coups. Of 22 presidents, just one served a complete term. Only four died of natural causes.” The Americans found a country in utter disarray. The streets were filthy, bridges had collapsed, and the telephone and telegraph systems were inoperable.

The Americans proceeded to fix many of Haiti’s problems. They built roads and bridges and fixed the telephone lines and the irrigation systems. They set up hospitals and overhauled the Haitian sanitation system. Haitians were sent to the United States to study medicine, while American doctors treated the Haitian sick. The Americans also built schools and theatres and parks. Haitians were trained to produce field-crops, manage soil, raise cattle and grow tobacco.

But, in 1934, the Americans made — so it would seem — a fatal mistake: They pulled out. Soon Haiti was back to where it started. Thus, historian Robert Heinl, who visited Haiti in 1958, found the “telephones gone … roads approaching non-existence … ports obstructed by silt … docks crumbling … sanitation and electrification in precarious decline.”

Thirty-six years later, another American president, Bill Clinton, had an epiphany. He would break the cycle of coups and counter-coups, restore a deposed president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power and launch Haiti on the road to recovery. Ten years and $2 billion later, Haiti is in turmoil. The streets are filthy, public order is gone and the economy is in tatters. The $850 million generously provided by U.S. taxpayers in aid enriched the governing elite but had no effect on alleviating Haitian poverty. And, so, Marines are going back in to restore order and bring peace. They will be under pressure to stay and engage in what the candidate for U.S. president in the 2000 election, George W. Bush, said was a silly idea, “nation-building.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the recent war in Iraq are, the Bush administration can at least plausibly claim that “nation-building” in that country is in America’s interest. No such claim can be made regarding Haiti. Haiti has no possible strategic significance for the United States. Yet the president apparently has embraced the liberal-interventionist agenda, which claims that the only way to achieve American safety and prosperity is to remake the world’s trouble spots into America’s own image — by force if necessary.

But free market democracies take time to evolve. Stability and prosperity cannot be imposed from above without a seismic shift in the political culture of the occupied population. But, even under the best of circumstances, that shift requires decades-long commitment of American blood and treasure. But the president cannot expect that sort of commitment from the American people, for it is they who will have to carry the burden of higher taxes and soldiers lost on foreign battlefields.

Ironically, the strongest supporters of American interventionism in Haiti, Sierra Leone and other failed states are likely to emerge from among the liberal intelligentsia. It should come as no surprise that one of the founding fathers of American interventionism, Woodrow Wilson, is venerated in international relations departments throughout the United States as the man behind such visionary initiatives as the “fourteen points” and the League of Nations.

Wilson, incidentally, was the President, who, in 1915, sent the American troops to Haiti for the first time. President Bush is following in Wilson’s footsteps. Like Wilson, he will fail.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.