By DeWayne Wickham
While the Obama administration has embraced the democracy movement that is pressuring Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to end to his 30-year rule, it seems less certain of what to do to keep Haiti’s fragile democracy from disintegrating.
“Going back to the old ways is not going to work. Suppression’s not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work,” Obama said in the clearest statement from him so far that, like the tens of thousands of people who have taken to the streets of Cairo, he thinks it’s time for Mubarak to give up power.
But in Haiti , where the United States has led an international effort to raise billions of dollars to fund the recovery of that earthquake-ravaged nation, the country is increasingly at risk of giving in to “the old ways.”
Last month, as the results of the first round of Haiti ’s presidential election were being disputed, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the right-wing dictator who was chased from the country 25 years ago, was allowed to return. Now broke after allegedly stealing $300 million from Haiti ’s treasure, Duvalier has returned to help Haiti . How? One of his American lawyers said (presumably with a straight face) that Duvalier could assist in managing the $10 billion in relief other nations have pledged to Haiti . While there’s no chance of that happening, he can cause trouble in another way.
Duvalier has “close friends and former colleagues” in the campaigns of the three candidates who were the top finishers in the first phase of the presidential election, according to The New York Times.
He was greeted by 2,000 supporters upon his return to Haiti , and while he was later arrested on charges of corruption and embezzlement, it is uncertain that he will ever be tried.
What seems a better bet is that Duvalier’s return, and the anticipated arrival of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide, will push Haiti closer to turmoil.
Aristide is a leftist who became Haiti ’s first democratically elected president. He was toppled by a coup in 1991 and restored to office three years later with the help of American troops. Aristide was toppled again in 2004 by rebel soldiers, who this time had a lot more support among the Haitian people and — some believe — the backing of the George W. Bush administration.
Haiti, which is still reeling from last year’s earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, was rocked by rioting following the announcement of the results of the disputed presidential election and hit hard by a cholera epidemic that’s taken more than 4,000 lives.
With another round of voting scheduled for March 20, the thing Haiti needs more than anything else now is a level of stability and calm. But what it’s likely to get once Aristide returns — and he and Duvalier rally their old supporters to their side — will be a return to the bloody factionalism that punctuated their time at the helm of Haiti’s government.
“They (Duvalier and Aristide) want to use this situation to reinsert themselves as part of the country’s power structure,” said Jean Wilson, a Haitian-American lawyer who has been actively involved in efforts to raise recovery funds for Haiti . “It really shows the level of desperation of the Haitian people that these despots would be allowed to return.”
Worse than that, it suggests that the Obama administration — which has far more influence in Haiti than in Egypt — failed to keep these old troublemakers from returning at a time when Haiti’s democracy is most vulnerable to the havoc they almost certainly will produce.