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Haiti Crisis

Robert Maguire
Director of International Affairs and Haiti Programs, Trinity College
Monday, March 1, 2004; 2:30 PM

U.S. Marines and French troops arrived in Haiti's capital, convulsed by violence after the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The troops hold peacekeeping duties as part of a United Nations authorized multi-national force.

Robert Maguire, director of International Affairs and Haiti Programs at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., was online Monday, March 1 at 2:30 p.m. ET, to discuss the current events in Haiti.

The transcript follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Texas: Professor Maguire,

The obvious question. Could you explain in a nutshell why Haiti has been such an unsuccessful, troubled nation for so long?

Robert Maguire: It is tough to answer this in a nutshell. But, here are essential elements:

1. Haiti became an international pariah state at independence, and thus faced severe constraints, particularly on the economic front since it was forced to pay a ransom to the French to gain international recognition, thus robbing the country of scarce development resources;
2. Haiti has suffered years of mis-governance, with its leaders too often putting their interests ahead of those of the country and its citizens. As a result the Haitian 'state' has never really invested in the Haitian 'nation.'

So, in short, mis-governance, divisions within Haitian society, and international interference have worked in tandem to harm Haiti.


Washington, D.C.: It has been reported in other media outlets (i.e. Democracy Now and some foreign papers) that Aristide was kidnapped by U.S. forces and taken out of the country against his will, do think this is true? If so, what does it mean for the future of US-Hatian relations?

washingtonpost.com: Rebels, U.S. Marines Enter Haiti Capital (AP, March 1)

Robert Maguire: I have started to hear these reports, but am waiting for some independent confirmation. This morning's press reports on Mr. Aristide's departure seem to contradict them. Hopefully, additional information (and eye witnesses) will emerge that will clarify this.


Montego Bay, Jamaica: How much support does Aristide still have in Haiti? Is a political come-back possible for him?

Robert Maguire: Support of Mr. Aristide had eroded signifncantly in the past few years, largely because his government couldn't deliver on promises to bring change to the lives of its poor supporters due to lack of resources, and because Haitians became increasingly frustrated and put off by the corruption and political violence attributed to Mr. Aristide. Hence, many in Haiti are relieved to see him go, even though many also recognize the trade-offs of this in terms of the constitutional parameters of the country. Mr. Aristide, however, maintains a core following in Haiti. His future in Haiti may depend largely on what his political successors are - or are not - able to do.


Washington, D.C.: Admittedly I haven't been following the events in Haiti closely until now. But I thought Aristide brought stability to Haiti. What caused the sudden turn of events or was this something brewing for a while and the U.S. ignored the signs and continued to back Aristide?

Robert Maguire: The turn of events was not sudden, and to a large degree Mr. Aristide was his own worst enemy. Mr. Aristide, as someone who rose to power against Haiti's political grain (the army, the traditional poliical class, and the comemcial elites) has been a polarizing figure who elicits strong emotional responses either for or against him. This has been true in Haiti as well as outside of Haiti. Over the past three years, Aristide's government has few external resources at its disposal. Part of this was due to Mr. Aristude's own political miscalculations - the refusal to re-run the 8 flawed senate seat posts following the May 2000 election is a clear example of the way Mr. Aristide has been his own worst enemy. The mis-steps by Mr. Aristide and his supporters have fueled those who did not think highly of him in the first place.


Columbia, Md.: The press in this country seems to just be covering this issue from the stand point of the rebels and the official US line. I have seen little reporting from the Aristide Government. In reading the tone of the Post's article, you get the feeling that there was a lot of pressure put onto Aristide to leave.

Some even say that the US ferried him away but gave him no choice as to where he was going. Apparently he is under "protection" of the US govenrment.

Noriega has always been opposed to Aristide. Do you think the US backed , at least tacitly, what essentially appears to be a coup and against democracy ?

They refused to release loans to the government and seemed to wink at the former Frap lead "rebellion".

Why did they feel they could not try elections in 2 years ?

Robert Maguire: Your question is complicated, actually with several questions. It seems that Mr. Aristide's opponents did a very good job in controling the message that came out of Haiti. Part of this was accomplished by determination, part by simply making themselves accessible to the press. One can argue that Mr. Aristide was more interested in controling the streets than in controling the message. That said, however, the government did make efforts to get its message out, but they were largely isolated and ineffective.

The issue of the wihdrawal and blockage of economic support to the Haitian government was a key factor in weakening Mr. Aristide and, conversely, in strengthening his opponents. But, then again, through some decisions that were difficult to understand, Mr. Aristide's government put fuel on the fire of those who did not like him in the first place.


Washington, D.C.: What is behind the United States providing the means for Aristide excile instead of keeping him in office?

How significant is Haiti to the Unitied States? Do we (United States) receive any natural resources or any other resources from Haiti?

Robert Maguire: Haiti is important to the US for several reasons. First and foremost are the issues of migration and of drug trafficking. In regards to the latter, Haiti is in a direct line between the north coast of Colombia and the US. Much of Colombia's illicit produce passes through Haiti - this is nothing new under Mr. Aristide, I should add. But Haiti's poverty and weak public institutions have made it a vulnerable target of drug traffickers.

Haiti is a major mango exporter to the US. But, in truth, there are not any resources - like oil, gas, minerals, etc. in Haiti that are of strategic value to the US. Hence, geopolitical considerations really underscore the US interest in Haiti.


Delray Beach, Fla.: Isn't Haiti another example of US foreign policy miscalulations? We insist that countries do it our way when it seems that they don't quite know how to do it. Don't you think that if we are going to get involved that we would know that we need to be there....for a very long time to teach this idea of democracy?

Why do we keep setting up the same scenario over and over?

Robert Maguire: The US (and the International Community) miscalculated badly in 1994, when Mr. Aristide was restored to power. Remember, the Haiti intervention came shortly after the disaster in Somalia. As a result, the US did not 'stay the course' and really help to nurture Haiti away from its troubled past. We were too quick to have an exit strategy, avoid nation-building, and have no mission creep. This time, hopefully the US and its allies will make the necessary commitments of resources and staying power to assist Haitians move away from the past and establish institutions that will not erode quickly. In the end, however, it will be up to the people of Haiti.


Silver Spring, Md.: You mention that Aristide went against the grain. The institutions you mentioned did little to nothing to for the average citizen for decades. For whatever his faults, Aristide did not think things could keep going this way.

With the checkered past of most of the rebel leadership, is Haiti going to return to the days of true dictatorship ?

Robert Maguire: The presence of the armed rebels is highly problematic. among them are convicted criminals and human rights abusers and people with alleged involvement in political violence and murder. They have fortified their strength by opening up Haiti's prisons, including the national pen. This element cannot have a meaningful seat at the political table if Haiti is to move away from its past. Events of today, however, seem to indicate otherwise. We can expect that as the dust of the past week or so settles, information will emerge that will reinforce the problematic past of these 'rebels.'


New York, NY: If Aristide was not the legitimate president of Haiti, why was he illegitimate? What were the problems with his election? Why is it less harmful to democracy in Haiti for Aristide to complete his term until the next election, which was two years away?

Robert Maguire: Aristide was the legitimately elected President of Haiti. His election was clouded by the flaws in the preceeding elections (parliamentary) and by the fact that most international observors stayed home and did not provide support for them. The opposition boycotted the election, also, so this meant that M. Aristide ran vitrually unopposed. Those who chose to boycott an election have little credibility to cry foul.


Chevy Chase, Md.: After Aristide agreed to the U.S. peace proposal, the statements by Bush, Powell and others became even more belligerent. Do you think the U.S. government was supporting Aristide's ouster the whole time, just like the first Bush administration did in 1991?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Administration Denies Forcing Aristide's Retreat (Post, March 1)

Robert Maguire: There has never been any great affection for Mr. Aristide from among those you mention in your question. You are right to point out that Mr. Aristide agreed to work with the international community to find a solution whereas his opponents did not. For them, however, there was nothing the international players could say to diminish their strong distrust of Mr. Aristide. It appears highly unfortunately that the administration could not get the opposition to come to the table at a time when Mr. Aristide was highly weakened. The events that followed can certainly lead one to believe that the US government sought Mr. Aristide's ouster all along. Democracy is not a candy store operation where one picks and choses. It is ironic that an opposition that calls itself democratic refused to engage when they were at a position of strength and rather chose to stand pat while violence comntinued to reign down upon the country and its people. The damage done by the violence is yet another cross that Haiti will have to bear. There are no cleaer winners in this scenario.


Harrisburg, Pa.:
What was the degree of corruption before and during Aristide? Do the rebels promise serious reforms, and what seems to be the likelihood that such promised reforms can actually be met?

Robert Maguire: Haiti has always been plagued by corruption. Many experts have argued that the corruption seen under Mr. Aristide was not as bad as that under various military governments or dictatorships. Still, Mr. Aristide did not appear equipped to clamp down on corruption, something that would have earned him strong interantional support. I have yet to see any position papers or statements - about anything - from the rebels or the political opposition. This has been a struggle for power, not of ideas.


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any opinion of Ira Kurzban, Aristide's US lawyer/representative? Has he been part of the solution or part of the problem?

Robert Maguire: Mr. Kurzban has been a lead advocate/lobbiest/political insider linked to Mr. Aristide. In this regard, he has a great deal of inside knowledge and understanding. So it is interesting to listen to him (in reference to an earlier question, he has helped to get out information fromt he government's perspective). But, Mr. Kurzban has also been a contracted advisor to the government. Surely he has Haiti's interests in mind, but surely, as well, from the perspective that he represents.


Atlanta, Ga: The NY times reports that Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former death-squad leader, is thanking the US for it's help in Overthrowing Aristide and proclaiming his alliance to the US and "brothers." What a mess. Can you tell us more about this man?

Robert Maguire: It is truly distasteful for Mr. Chamblain to even address the United States. It is also truly distasteful for him and his men to masquerade around with US flags tied to their necks and across their faces. This is the height of blatant hypocrisy. Mr. Chamblain has a track record of political murder that is well known in Haiti. Expect to hear more about this as the days progress.


Milwaukee, Wis.: Do you feel there are any viable leaders among the following officials: Boniface Alexandre, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Evans Paul and Andre Apaid, Jr.? You seem to have already discounted Guy Philippe and Louis Jodel Chamblain as criminals, but might they be a force in politics?

Robert Maguire: I can only say that I hope that Haiti will be led by individuals who can put the interests of their country ahead of their own pesonal interests, and can lead not from the past, but toward a better future. Surely, it is important that the two principal political forces in Haiti today - Lavalas and the Unified Opposition (minus the 'thugs') find a way to forge a working relationship toward the betterment of the country.


Miami, Fla.: You have long experience in rural Haiti, which has surely suffered the most because of foreign aid cut-offs and political chaos. What needs to be done at this stage to restart sustainable rural development in Haiti, which could lay the foundation for future democratic processes?

Robert Maguire: In any development effort, I think local ownership of the initiative is a key element to its success and sustainability. This is usually not the case in externally driven development efforts that are planned somewhere else and depend exclusively on outside resources. Local efforts will be assisted by community partnerships that include civl society, grassroots organizations, local government and the private sector. They shoudl address common needs and begin the process of development by addressing them together.


Robert Maguire: I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for sending questions and for being concerned about what is happening in Haiti. Regretfully, given what kind of day this is, I must conclude now, so I will not be able to address more questions. I hope my responses - as 'quick and dirty' as they have been - have been useful.


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