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David Keene
March 2, 2004

Haiti may never escape its tragic history, but anyone who cares about the place ought to be pleased that the mad ex-priest who was first elected in 1990, run off by the military in 1991 and put back in charge by a force of 20,000 U.S. Marines in 1994 is gone.

American liberals had a lot riding on Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They saw him as the antidote to Haiti's past. He was a friend of Bill Clinton, Charles Rangel and, most of all, of Tony Lake who helped convince then-President Clinton that even if he was no longer a priest, the man was a saint who deserved our unswerving support. They loved his "populist" rhetoric and the promises that he and his Lavalas Party would fight for the poor who rallied to his cause.

It was all talk, of course, but even as it became clear that the man was at best simply another in a long line of petty despots who have looted the tiny island nation and abused its inhabitants, they stuck with him. Lake was the best man at his wedding, and top Democrats cut themselves in for a piece of the action as their new Caribbean hero began dividing up the spoils.

Having abandoned his priestly vow of poverty, our hero became the richest man on the island while continuing to attack others who lived much above the poverty level. He took to silencing his opponents and tossing his critics into jail. He may have won fair and square when he ran the first time, but he quickly learned how to rig elections. Those who traveled to Haiti as observers were appalled.

In the wake of those elections, the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States all came down hard on Aristide. The money finally stopped, and he was told that it wouldn't be turned back on until new, free elections could be held. Aristide defied his former friends and replaced his native personal security detail with hirelings from Castro's Cuba.

The economy, or what passed for an economy in Haiti, collapsed. Only Aristide, his closest allies and Haiti's banks, which had become laundries for drug lords, were doing well. Business was fleeing, yet the United States continued to back its flawed hero even as Haitians began to conclude that the man had to go.

I attended a meeting at about that time in Port au Prince with what is known as the Democratic Convergence. This was and remains a coalition of Aristide's political opponents. The meeting took place in a dingy part of the capital. As it began, I was introduced to the representatives of 16 political parties who had come together in opposition to Aristide. On my right sat the chairman of the old Duvalier party, and on my left was the head of Haiti's Communist Party. It was quite a meeting and when it came time for me to say a few words, I observed that at least Aristide had kept one of his promises: He had managed to unite the Haitian people -- in opposition to his rule.

It was clear to me as I left that meeting that eventually Aristide would fall. Many of those who rose at great personal risk to themselves to denounce him had helped put him in power in the first place. They felt betrayed by the former priest in whom they had invested so much hope and by the United States for continuing to prop him up. Indeed, our embassy continually urged most of them to tone down their opposition to Aristide because, regardless of the irregularities that convinced us to cut off our financial assistance to his government, we assured them that we would not look kindly on anyone who tried to topple him.

Finally, after all the politicians had spoken, an old man stood up. He was, I was told, the senior Protestant clergyman on the island but was respected by all. He had translated the Bible into Creole and, like the others present, had hoped for better from Aristide and from the United States. He said, "The United States military brought Aristide back after the military coup and presented him to us as their gift to the Haitian people. It was a gift we didn't want but couldn't reject. It was a poisonous gift, and they left it with us when they went home."

"If the United States really cares about us, they would take their gift back," he concluded and sat down.

Well, we didn't "take him back," but at least we finally bowed to the inevitable and told him to take his money and get out.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm

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