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Aristide's failed promise

TWO HUNDRED years old and still suffering -- that is the sad tale of Haiti and Haitians during this poignant bicentennial month. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's last best hope for positive change, may soon be ousted by renewed massive street protests. Already opponents and loyalists have clashed repeatedly in the streets of Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, and general strikes and stay-aways are called for this week. Several hundred Haitians have lost their lives since mid-December.


Instead of presiding over economic growth and political maturity, as was expected after the United States returned him to office in 1994, Aristide's administration has been mired in corruption, swamped by narco-trafficking, and complicit in economic stagnation.

Opposition to Aristide has been building since flawed legislative elections in 2000. Opposition leaders seek a transitional government, followed by new elections and new rulers. Aristide vows to stay in office until his presidential term ends late next year.

When Aristide, a Jesuit-trained priest with enormous charisma and populist appeal, swept to an overwhelming victory in the 1990 elections, his long impoverished and politically jaundiced countrymen expected Haiti's long years of dictatorship and misgovernment finally to end. But Aristide's attempts to curb the military-business complex that had been filling the pockets of privileged leaders at the expense of Haiti's poor led to a military coup and three years in exile.

The Clinton administration intervened militarily to restore Aristide, expecting good results. Aristide, however, soon fell into a hallowed Haitian mode, behaving more and more autocratically and using paramilitary forces to bully opponents, rig parliamentary elections, and limit human rights and free speech.

Most of all, he refused to modernize Haiti economically; Haiti's ossified state-owned monopolies operate much as they did under Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, the country's oppressive despot from 1958 to 1971.

Aristide's tight hand on state capitalism, prevention of open trade, and little action in preventing the transshipment of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, enriched the power elite in Haiti and caused much of the national malaise. Aristide had been expected to reform Haiti; instead he and his cronies have profited from the economic disarray of their country, as their predecessors always did.

Haitian living standards have retreated under Aristide. Although it has a prosperous and energetic diaspora community eager to help Haiti emerge from its long decades of despair, the national annual Gross Domestic Product per capita is about $250, 50 percent lower than Honduras and 75 percent lower than the Dominican Republic.

Half of all Haitians are illiterate, life expectancy is about 57 years, and AIDS is widespread. Only 1.5 percent of the population has access to piped water. There is one physician per 11,000 Haitians. Unemployment is about 80 percent. These dispiriting figures show little improvement over the dreadful Duvalier days of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Aristide-dominated parliament that was elected in 2000 ends its term this week, and the president will have to rule by fiat or call a new election. His opponents have promised to boycott any poll unless Aristide leaves office.

Aristide controls the police (there is no army) and paramilitary groups, but the police may defect to the opposition, as they have in times past. Then Aristide will be forced from office after more large-scale civil disobedience. Much blood has already been spilled, and still more can be predicted before Aristide is ousted. Many previous presidencies have ended in the same way.

Haiti has known precious periods of democracy throughout its first 200 years. This lack of an effective political culture has bedeviled the small nation from the beginning, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An American occupation from 1915 to 1932 hardly helped inculcate principles of good government. Nor have there been many free and fair elections.

Aristide's originally was a popular mandate and his election in 1990 a distinct break with Haiti's past. Or so it seemed. What is needed after Aristide is a truly democratic leader with a willingness to put country before person, and a vision of radical social and economic change.

Haiti, empowered from within and energized by tapping the demonstrated know-how of the large and successful Haitian communities in Boston, New York, and Miami, could then prosper as never before. But competent and honest government is a prerequisite.

Robert I. Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation, is author of "Haiti's Turmoil: Politics and Policy under Aristide and Clinton."

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