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17861: Esser: SA's Haiti involvement may not be all that bad (fwd)

From: D. E s s e r <torx@joimail.com>

The Star/South Africa
January 12, 2004

SA's Haiti involvement may not be all that bad

By Nicole Fritz

President Thabo Mbeki's recent visit to Haiti, if only in
terms of security considerations, seemed spectacularly

The more important question is whether South Africa's
subsequent involvement in the Haitian political impasse is
similarly misjudged.

Despite the recent bicentennial celebrations of Haiti's
establishment as the first free black republic, the country
today, as many commentators have pointed out, appears to
offer little reason to celebrate.

It is the poorest country in the northern hemisphere; it has
the highest HIV/Aids infection rate of that sphere; it ranks
fourth, after Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea in terms of
malnutrition; almost half its population have no access to
clean water; and huge numbers of children die each year from

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while fiery and courageous in his
opposition to the various military juntas that controlled
Haiti in the '80s, has not appeared to offer much of a way
out of this morass. More disturbingly, during his tenure as
president, a number of prominent journalists have been
killed and opposition leaders subjected to vicious attacks.

We don't know whether Aristide actually oversaw these
attacks or condoned them in the sense of failing to take
action against the perpetrators. It might not seem to matter
much - each arguably makes Aristide as culpable as the

But in a country as poor as Haiti, with a barely functioning
infrastructure, where the civil service represents the best
hope of material advancement, where institutions like the
police and army have degenerated into personal fiefdoms and
which have spawned numerous coups and counter coups, it
becomes much more difficult to insist that there is an
effective chain of command, and thus that Aristide
effectively exercises ultimate control.

In this way, Aristide's Haiti is much like a number of West
African nations, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc, which are all
but collapsed states and where the head of state sits atop a
seething mass. Haiti's present position is exacerbated by
the fact that much of the aid on which it is dependent has
been frozen. Aid received from the US, the European Union,
Canada and Japan has been reduced by two-thirds since 1995
and the US has slashed donations by more than half since

An Inter-American Development Bank loan of $145-million (now
worth about R942-million) earmarked for roads, schools,
health and water was cancelled at the request of the US
representative in 2001. US involvement in Haiti, however,
hasn't ceased. It publicly acknowledges that it gives
recognised political parties as much training as possible so
they can compete nationally‚ and, as Tracy Kidder reports in
the Nation (27 October 2003), public documents evidence that
the US helped to create the main political opposition‚ the
Democratic Convergence.

This isn't necessarily bad but, as Kidder identifies, it is
sinister if, as Aristide's supporters say, part of
Washington's strategy is to make room for an opposition by
crippling Aristide's government by blocking IDB loans, for

And US frustration of Aristide and his party, the Lavalas,
would fit with its long suspicion of liberation theology,
with its aspects of Marxian analysis, which Aristide

US backing of the opposition doesn't necessarily put
Aristide in the clear. It doesn't make him a good, uncorrupt
but persecuted leader. But it does intensify the
complexities of the situation, making the involvement of a
good-faith mediator, like South Africa, that much more

Haiti also desperately needs the release of its frozen aid‚
to bankroll basic infrastructure, but also if
entrepreneurial projects, which ultimately reduce aid
dependency, are to be initiated. Conceivably there is the
chance that much of that aid will be used to line the
pockets of the Lavalas, but if there is any chance of
softening Haiti's misery that aid has to be released. To the
extent that donor states and agencies are more likely to
lift the freeze on seeing good-faith mediation and
negotiations, SA's involvement is a good thing.

A different question we might ask, though, is: given SA's
inability to do much to ameliorate the misery in our own
neighbouring state, are we in any position to be taking on
any more misery?