Days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide announced to the United Nations that Haiti’s dark past of dictatorship was over, the Haitian military ousted him in a bloody coup that ended that country’s brief experiment with democracy. The first freely elected president in Haiti’s history had only been in office for eight months. The overthrow of Aristide on September 30, 1991, crushed hopes that democracy had taken root in Haiti and that the military was dedicated to supporting civilian-controlled government.
Coup leaders and the elite apparently felt uncomfortable with Aristide’s style of governing. Indeed, some of his practices reflected values that were far from democratic. Bypassing the legislature, encouraging mob violence, creating a personal militia, and intimidating political opponents were all cited as major grievances against Aristide. That such practices would continue under civilian-led government should not be surprising, though, in a country with a long history of authoritarianism.
Nonetheless, the inter-American community responded forcefully and unanimously in condemning the coup. Only two days after the overthrow, Secretary of State James A. Baker III asserted to the Organization of American States, “It is imperative … for the sake of Haitian democracy and the cause of democracy throughout the hemisphere … to act collectively to defend the legitimate government of President Aristide.” One week after the coup, and after the collapse of initial negotiations to return the Haitian president to power, the OAS voted in favor of economically isolating the Caribbean nation.
Both the United States and the OAS have been incapable of imposing a successful solution to the crisis in Haiti. Their attempts to do so have come at the expense of that country’s poor. Even worse, as the economic sanctions placed on Haiti have failed to accomplish stated foreign policy goals—the restoration of democracy and reinstatement of Aristide as president—there have been increasing calls for multilateral military intervention and even the creation of a permanent regional peace-keeping force. Such proposals are as ill-conceived as the initial embargo imposed by the inter-American community. Military intervention would provide no benefits for the United States, nor is it justified by American security interests. A military “solution” would most assuredly require a long-term commitment on the part of all countries involved, and most hemispheric nations cannot afford such a commitment. Moreover, Washington’s history of extensive involvement in Haiti has proved that military intervention and nation-building schemes are counterproductive.