Cato Policy Analysis No. 183 November 5, 1992

Policy Analysis

Doing What We Can For Haiti

by Ian Vasquez

Ian Vasquez is the assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.

Executive Summary

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."(1) 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.

Effects of the Embargo

By joining a hemispheric trade embargo against Haiti, the United States has tried to achieve collectively what it has on so many occasions failed to accomplish unilaterally in Latin America--securing policy or political change in a target regime through the application of economic sanctions. Though the record of failure is clear,(2) and has most recently included such target countries as Nicaragua, Panama, and Cuba, the United States and the OAS did not hesitate to use the same foreign policy instrument. In Nicaragua, for example, the embargo initiated against the Sandinista regime in 1985 resulted in the diversification of that country's trade and failed to reverse militarization there. Ultimately, what led to the 1990 defeat of the Sandinistas was the withdrawal of support from a deteriorating Soviet Union. Sanctions imposed against Panama beginning in 1987 severely damaged the economy, thereby injuring the middle class and the anti-Noriega business sector. U.S. policy resulted neither in free and fair elections nor in a civilian-controlled Panamanian government. The failure of the sanctions culminated in the forcible removal of Noriega through a U.S. military invasion. And despite a 30-year embargo against Cuba, Fidel Castro remains in power, though he has been weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and a substantial reduction of trade with the former Eastern bloc countries.

Sanctions against Haiti have ostensibly been aimed at undermining the coup leaders and punishing the ruling elite that supports them. The actual effects have been quite different. As could have been expected, the already destitute poor have suffered the most, while the sanctions have further empowered the military and the rich. Since the embargo went into effect, at least 140,000 private-sector jobs have been lost from a total of 252,000.(3) Since there are approximately six dependents per job holder, the losses directly affect nearly 1 million people. The impact of the embargo on the business environment will also be negative in the long term. For example, the country's export assembly industry (a major employer) has been effectively shut down, and many of the plants have closed permanently.(4)

Meanwhile, soldiers and the elite have not only found ways to circumvent sanctions but have profited from the crippled economy by hoarding and selling smuggled goods. Even the military in the neighboring Dominican Republic has profited as cross-border trade has significantly increased.(5) In addition, the situation has proved fertile for the drugtrafficking business, which in the past involved members of the Haitian military and has most recently served to disrupt any political settlement to the crisis.

The embargo has produced worsening health conditions and accelerated environmental degradation throughout Haiti. The blockage of shipments of fuel has led to increased deforestation and soil erosion as many people are forced to burn scarce wood and charcoal for cooking. The fuel shortage has also undermined the capacity of Haitians to feed themselves. Water needed for irrigating fields has been diverted to provide Port-au-Prince with hydroelectric power. The agricultural sector has further been harmed by the scarcity of pesticides and fertilizers, also blocked by the embargo. As hunger has become prevalent, harsh survival tactics, such as foraging for plants and eating seeds of crop plants, have led to a surge of illnesses in the poorest areas. For example, the sanctions have contributed to extensive malnutrition, disease, and famine in the northwest. Unfortunately, in rural areas scarcity of transportation and lack of electricity have led to otherwise preventable deaths because vaccines cannot be adequately refrigerated or transported.(6)

Spurning the Refugees

Not surprisingly, postembargo conditions have generated a flood of desperate Haitians (more than 40,000) attempting to escape economic hardship and political repression. U.S. policy toward the refugees has been harsh. The Bush administration contends that most of those Haitians are ineligi ble for asylum because they are fleeing for economic rather than political reasons. Of the estimated 38,000 refugees processed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service at Guantanamo Bay naval base since the coup, 27,000 have been forcibly repatriated. Yet despite State Department claims that the United States has not received evidence that repatriated Haitians face persecution, reports of arrests, beatings, torture, and other human rights abuses perpetrated by the Haitian army continue. For example, Amnesty International has documented cases of arbitrary killings, arrests, and other abuses linked to the military since the coup, and the organization's U.S. deputy director has reported a dramatic increase in repression since April 1992.(7) A report released in September 1992 by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights concurs with Amnesty's findings and goes on to state, "The human rights situation in Haiti is worse than at any time since the Duvalier era."(8)

The increasing flow of Haitian refugees (more than 10,000 in May 1992 alone) prompted Bush to qualify the situation as "unmanageable" and to introduce on May 24 a policy that effectively prevents further Haitian immigration.(9) Pursuant to an executive order, the Coast Guard has been intercepting refugees and turning them back to Haiti without allowing hearings for asylum claims. Although the administration is certainly returning some political refugees in the process, it contends that its main concern is to discourage Haitians from risking their lives on the high seas. Moreover, the administration has accepted assurances from Haiti's military-backed government that it will not harm the returned refugees.

The legality of Washington's restrictive immigration policy is dubious. The administration argues that, because the Coast Guard is operating outside U.S. territory, the United States is not bound by U.S. law, which prohibits the return of political refugees. Although forcibly repatriating Haitians without determining their political status has been effective in stemming the flow of refugees, the safety of those Haitians may be compromised by a policy that must downplay human rights abuses in order to maintain legitimacy.(10)

The United States and the OAS have so far achieved precisely the opposite of what they intended. Their policy has provoked human rights violations, further impoverished a destitute nation, helped degrade the environment, worsened public health conditions, encouraged drug smuggling, and failed to achieve its primary goal--restoring democracy. If anything, the embargo has strengthened the tyrannical and arbitrary powers of the military elite.

Proposals for Aggressive Intervention

The overthrow of Aristide and languishing diplomatic efforts to resolve the Haitian crisis have led to calls for more drastic measures. Proposals range from the institution of a naval blockade of the island nation to its full-scale occupation and even "recolonization."

Soon after the army ousted Aristide, Robert Pastor, a former director of Latin American and Caribbean affairs on the National Security Council, called for collective military action to prevent future coups and hinted that "Haiti's military ultimately might need the threat of an OAS peacekeeping force to persuade it to yield power."(11) Editorials in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times echoed those sentiments.(12) Slightly less bellicose suggestions have come from others, including Douglas Payne, director of hemispheric studies at Freedom House in New York, who advocates a blockade of oil as the most effective means of dealing with the crisis.(13) More recently, Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) has introduced a plan whereby the OAS would partially occupy Haiti in order to provide humanitarian and refugee assistance.(14)

Some opinion makers advocate longer term, more comprehensive nation-building schemes. Peter Hakim, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, stated that Haiti cannot progress economically or politically without outside help. "The United States and other OAS members must remain engaged in Haiti over the long haul," he wrote. Hakim went on to prescribe "substantial and sustained economic assistance" for a postjunta nation and suggested that "the inter- American community should also be prepared to assist with large numbers of advisors and technical specialists."(15) Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer also proposed a way to "save" Haiti: "It would have to be in some creative way 'recolonized' for a time. Outside countries would have the authority to go in for a period of, say, 10 years, and reorganize and industrialize and educate the population."(16)

Confidence in ambitious nation-building schemes, however, is misplaced. U.S. experience in Haiti and elsewhere provides ample reason for pessimism. American efforts to promote social and economic reforms in El Salvador throughout the 1980s, for instance, failed to produce a just and peaceful society. A study by the RAND Corporation concluded that after 10 years of U.S. pressure, and at a cost of $6 billion (far more than what had been anticipated), the United States was unable to accomplish its goal of winning a "clear victory" for the Salvadoran regime by strengthening democratic institutions and introducing reforms. The mili tary continues to disdain democratic principles and consequently does not enjoy popular support. In fact, the country's right-wing forces have used the judiciary and the legislature--institutions strengthened by U.S. efforts--to undermine the reforms the United States considered essential. Thus, the Marxist FMLN insurgency has neither lost its appeal nor been defeated.(17)

A decade of U.S. involvement in Vietnam produced similar results. Washington's costly (in terms of lives and money) nation-building attempts did not ultimately win popular support for South Vietnam's regime. After years of intervention, the United States was finally forced to retreat.

The Failed Record of U.S. Intervention

Attempts to restore democracy are clearly plagued with difficulties, and postrestoration scenarios of aggressive nation building in Haiti are also of dubious value. The U.S. record of intrusion into Haiti's affairs during this century is a testament to that fact.

When the United States intervened in Haiti in 1915, it hoped to promote democracy and maintain order by managing the country's internal affairs. According to an official statement: "The Government of the United States considers it its duty to support a constitutional government. It means to assist in the establishing of such a government, and to support it as long as necessity may require." Washington went on to insist that its involvement was "conceived in an effort to aid the people of Haiti in establishing a stable government and in maintaining domestic peace throughout the Republic."(18) As it turned out, the U.S. occupation lasted nearly 20 years and did little to establish democratic traditions. Instead, it contributed to the development of an authoritarian nationalist movement and a corresponding political manifestation known as Les Griots.(19) The intervention did not produce enduring economic development as intended, but it did create one lasting and dominant institu- tion--the Haitian military. It also led to the 1957 rise of Francois Duvalier, a founder of the nationalist Griots, who initiated a brutal 29-year dictatorship.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Washington's intervention has been characterized by an assortment of costly foreign aid programs. From 1962 to 1990 U.S. economic assistance exceeded $800 million, and assistance from U.S.- influenced multilateral institutions totaled over $800 million. Throughout that time the United States fluctuated between giving aid to encourage reform or to apply geopolitical pressures and withdrawing aid when its expecta- tions were not met.(20) Recent examples include a steady increase in economic assistance to the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier from approximately $30 million in FY 1981 to $87 million by FY 1986, followed by a suspension of aid in early 1986 designed to accelerate the dictator's downfall. The departure of Duvalier reminded Washington of its desire to promote democratic reform in Haiti and led to an increase in U.S. economic assistance for FY 1987 ($102 million). But after elections were canceled, the U.S. government suspended all nonhumanitarian assistance.(21) When President Aristide came to power in 1991, Washington promised $85.5 million in response to the country's apparent shift toward democracy. The overthrow of Aristide led to yet another round of aid suspensions.

Outside efforts to encourage reform have proved consistently frustrating. Yet proposals for massive infusions of economic assistance and even foreign management of Haiti's affairs persist. For example, members of the OAS ignored the historical record when in May 1992 they passed a resolution calling for the coordination of the "design and devel- opment of a comprehensive program for the economic recovery of Haiti."(22) There is little reason to doubt that such "support" of a postjunta government would result in the familiar sequence of events. The complexity of the daunting political, social, and economic problems that have historically plagued Haiti suggests that future attempts at nation building will meet the same fate as past programs.

Toward a Less Harmful Policy

More than a year after the overthrow of Aristide, it has become clear that U.S. policy toward Haiti has done far more harm than good. The U.S.-backed embargo has been ineffective and misguided. Although much of the damage (economic, environmental, and humanitarian) is permanent or long term, there are important steps the administration can take to alleviate the situation. Indeed, it is precisely because the harm caused by current policy is so pervasive and detrimental that an immediate change in direction is urgently needed.

Let the Haitians Flee Persecution

Among the most disturbing aspects of President Bush's response to the military coup is the way the administration has dealt with those Haitians attempting to flee political and economic persecution. The administration's policy of interdiction and forced repatriation without first determining the political status of the refugees should not, however, come as a surprise. Emigration from Haiti has long been one of Washington's major concerns and has played an important role in shaping U.S. relations with Haiti. When deteriorating conditions in Haiti in late 1980 and early 1981 provoked a noticeable flow of refugees to the shores of Florida, Congress responded by passing an amendment to the Foreign Assistance bill that made aid to Haiti conditional on, among other factors, that country's full cooperation in controlling illegal immigration. For its part, in late 1981 the Reagan administration entered into a bilateral agreement with the Duvalier regime to permit the U.S. Coast Guard to interdict Haitian boats on the high seas and return to Haiti passengers thought to be attempting illegal immigration.

The interdiction policy was effective in stemming the flow of illegal immigrants, but it also revealed Washington's peculiarly intense hostility toward immigration from Haiti. Of the 22,651 Haitians intercepted by the Coast Guard from September 1981 to October 1990, fewer than one dozen were allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.(23) U.S. treatment of Haitian refugees contrasts sharply with its treatment of refugees from other nations ruled by authoritarian regimes. From 1983 to 1990, for example, the United States approved only 2 percent of all Haitian asylum claims. During the same period, the United States granted asylum to 17 percent of those seeking refuge from Cuba, 34 percent of those from Vietnam, 61 percent of those from Iran, and 65 percent of those from China.(24)

President Bush's executive order to tighten refugee policy is only the latest episode in Washington's discriminatory treatment of Haitian would-be immigrants. Even before the president's policy decision was announced in May, the administration showed that it was willing (in practice though not in rhetoric) to backtrack on its earlier commitment to support a trade embargo in order to discourage the flow of Haitian boat people heading to Florida. Although the president partially relaxed the embargo in February--for example, allowing some U.S.-owned assembly plants to resume business in Haiti--that action was not sufficient to slow the flood of refugees.

At the very least, Washington should immediately end its insensitive treatment of Haitian refugees under the current interdiction program and allow all fleeing Haitians to make claims for asylum. That initiative is especially urgent given the increase in human rights violations in Haiti. The inhumane policy of returning the politically repressed to brutal oppressors must be replaced with a more open immigration policy consistent with traditional American values. Because of the severity of conditions in Haiti, due in large part to U.S. policy, immigration restrictions should be relaxed to allow consideration of economic, as well as political, claims to asylum.

Moreover, an objective evaluation of the impact of Haitian immigrants on local communities is long overdue. Those critical of an inflow of Haitian immigrants contend that their arrival could upset local economies and produce an increase in crime. Contrary to that perception, many community leaders in south Florida view Haitian immigrants as law abiding and hard working. In fact, the immigrants have built a growing and productive community, and Miami's "Little Haiti" is considered one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. According to the Miami police, moreover, Haitians do not affect the rate of violent crime in any signif- icant way, and, as one Miami police officer reported, "Newly arrived Haitians are more likely [to be] victims of crime than perpetrators."(25) Fears that Haitians would drag down the economy and have little to contribute to the community are further allayed by the fact that Haitians rarely receive welfare benefits and, according to an anthropologist from Florida International University who is an expert on Haitian immigrants, exhibit their strong belief in education by their high rate of registration for classes.(26) Those observations are consistent with studies of the impact of various immigrant groups that conclude that immigrants raise their own standard of living as well as that of members of the "receiving" community.(27)

A more open immigration policy would also be wise foreign policy. Haiti's ruling regime hardly desires an exodus of its citizens; a continuing outflow of people can only reinforce a negative national image abroad. It was the adverse impact on tourism and investment in Haiti created by the refugee crisis of the early 1980s that impelled Duvalier to agree to Washington's interdiction program.(28) Instead of preventing Haitian refugees from escaping their country, Washington should allow their flight from the country's inhospitable conditions. Permitting the boat people to flee unimpeded will decrease the military's opportunity to persecute political opponents. The Haitian leadership is also more apt to abandon its failed domestic policies if the United States allows Haitians to use the most effective form of dissent available to them--escape.

A humane refugee policy could also be effective in promoting economic progress in Haiti. Haitian exiles remit approximately $200 million to $300 million annually--an amount exceeding the level of foreign assistance given independently by either the United States or the various multilateral development agencies. Although foreign aid programs have failed to promote democracy or economic development, remittances tend to be effective in increasing the level of prosperity for several reasons. Unlike government-to-government aid, funds remitted to Haiti are generated by the private sector and sent directly to the final recipient. Not only is that form of wealth transfer voluntary and decentralized, it also avoids the bureaucratic waste and cor- ruption that aid programs have repeatedly faced in Haiti.(29) Moreover, the remitted funds are spent or invested according to market realities, unlike aid money that is subject to political considerations and bureaucratic control. Thus, a refugee policy that opens the doors to those fleeing Haiti for political and economic reasons will do more to advance development within that country than a policy that insists on the containment of people and the coercion of their government.

End the Embargo

Proponents of human rights are quick to recognize the urgency of letting Haitian refugees flee persecution, yet many rights advocates ignore the fact that the nearly unlivable conditions in Haiti are largely the result of the embargo. And many promoters of human rights go on to prescribe a strengthening of the embargo as a solution to the crisis. William G. O'Neill, deputy director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York, for example, called on the United Nations to immediately declare the same kind of universal embargo against Haiti that it has against Yugoslavia and Iraq. Although his proposal overlooks the fact that sanctions have failed to achieve their goals in both Yugoslavia and Iraq, O'Neill stated that humanitarian needs in Haiti can only be addressed once the embargo accomplishes its objectives. O'Neill deemphasized the negative effects that an extended embargo would have by asserting that "most Haitians have lived with an undeclared embargo for 200 years."(30) Similarly, Amy Wilentz, a board member of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees and a consultant to Americas Watch, in a New York Times op-ed, expressed the view that the embargo has not victimized Haitians but "provided them with spiritual sustenance."(31)

Washington should not continue to be preoccupied with the symbolic significance of maintaining harsh measures against Haiti. While it may be politically savvy to support an embargo--politicians are able to show strong disapproval of the dictatorship while the vast majority of their con stituents remain unaffected by the sanctions--such support is clearly destructive to the Haitian people. As long as sanctions endure, economic, social, political, environmental, and human rights conditions will worsen. If the administration and human rights advocates are interested in alleviating the severe conditions in Haiti, the embargo must be lifted. A revised refugee policy is not enough to address the distressing state of affairs Haitians face. Nor can humanitarian aid or the exemption of certain goods compensate for the effects of a destroyed economy. Aid agen- cies encounter the same conditions Haitians do--high operating costs, scarcity of goods such as fuel, lack of electricity, and the like. Reports that aid groups are being systematically repressed by the military further prove reliance on humanitarian aid to be an inadequate means of soothing the suffering of the poor.(32) A continued or extended embargo will only result in more misery.

The United States bears major responsibility for the harm caused by the embargo. Accounting for over 70 percent of Haiti's exports and more than 50 percent of its imports, the United States is by far Haiti's most important trading partner.(33) By ending the embargo, the administration would drastically improve the economy and living conditions in that nation. Reestablishing commercial relations with Haiti would not only help revive the country's economy, it might also slow the outflow of Haitian boat people. Certainly, fewer Haitians would risk their lives on the high seas if they could once again earn a living within Haiti. Normalized trade would also discourage lawlessness and profiteering as Haitians found more viable means to support themselves. Many exiles who have withheld remittances to Haiti for fear of theft might resume sending those payments. In countless other ways, a change in policy could improve Haitians' quality of life.

Finally, U.S. policymakers should acknowledge that preserving the sanctions can only be a symbolic measure. While there is little likelihood that the embargo will force the coup leaders from power, it is even less probable that the United States will be effective in establishing a meaningful democracy in their place. U.S. experience in Haiti throughout this century should be enough to make policy-makers at least skeptical about imposing democratic reforms. Given the minimal chance that current policy will be effective in any important sense, an end to the embargo becomes even more urgent.


As desirable as political democracy and economic liberalism may be, recent and not-so-recent experience in Haiti suggests that using coercion to impose those systems is futile. The outcome of the U.S.-backed embargo is the latest confirmation. The embargo has inflicted damage and suffering upon those whom it is intended to benefit--the majority of Haitians. Moreover, the U.S. policy goal of restoring Aristide as president may not even be consistent with the idea of promoting democracy. Aristide's unsavory practices--advocating mob violence, bypassing the legislature, and intimidating his political opposition--suggest that further constitutional violations can be expected, even under an elected leader. If genuine, stable democracy is to flourish in Haiti, it will have to spring from civil society, which requires a functioning economy. The United States should welcome such a development, but it cannot accelerate, much less impose, it.

The administration should avoid further involvement in missions that ignore local realities and discouraging historical precedents. The administration should immediately revise its inhumane refugee policy and allow those fleeing Haiti to claim asylum. In addition, a more open refugee policy that does not make a moral distinction between economic and political refugees is urgently needed. Both political and economic conditions in Haiti are life threatening. Finally, the United States must end its support of the hemispheric embargo and, with it, any pretensions that it is helping rather than harming Haiti.


(1) James A. Baker III, Address before the OAS, U.S. Depart ment of State Dispatch, October 7, 1991, p. 749.

(2) For a detailed account of the meager policy effects of economic sanctions against those countries, see Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot, Eco nomic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy (Washington: International Institute of Economics, 1985, 1990), pp. 175-91, 249-67; Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanc tions Reconsidered: Supplemental Case Histories (Washington: International Institute of Economics, 1990), pp. 194-204; and Bruce Bartlett, "What's Wrong with Trade Sanctions," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 64, December 23, 1985, pp. 6-8.

(3) "Haiti: Punishing Victims," The Economist, February 8, 1992, p. 36.

(4) Lee Hockstader, "For Haiti's Rulers, a Key Signal," Washington Post, February 5, 1992, p. A26.

(5) Canute James, "Haiti: A Theatre of the Absurd," Finan cial Times, March 10, 1992, p. 7.

(6) Howard W. French, "Land and Health Also Erode in Haiti," New York Times, January 28, 1992, p. A3; and Lee Hockstader, "Embargo Translates into Ecological Disaster for Haiti," Washington Post, May 31, 1992, p. A1.

(7) "Report Decries Haitian Abuses, U.S. Policies," Washing ton Post, August 21,

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