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17879: Severe: Manchester Guardian Editorial (Mugabe of the Caribbean) (fwd)
From: Constantin Severe <email@example.com>
Mugabe of the Caribbean
Haiti's president may be turning into the sort of dictator he once resisted,
but this change wasn't inevitable
Monday January 12, 2004
In the closing days of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship in Haiti,
Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the perfect popular hero. Physically tiny,
soft-spoken and apparently modest, the priest displayed an extraordinary
physical and moral courage. His parish church of St Jean Bosco, on the edge
of one of Port-au-Prince's largest and most disgusting slum districts, was
packed to overflowing on Sundays, despite the threats of the pro-Duvalier
thugs who would circle the church and attack congregants. Aristide survived
numerous attempts on his life but never gave in.
When Baby Doc Duvalier, Papa Doc's obese and incompetent son, was overthrown
in 1987, Aristide seemed the perfect antidote; a celibate priest and an
orphan, he saw Haiti's poor as his family. If he could only be president,
perhaps there would be social justice at last in the western hemisphere's
most miserable republic.
In 1990, the people briefly got their wish: Aristide was elected president
by a huge majority. He was no longer a priest - he had been expelled for
preaching politics from the pulpit - and silk suits had replaced his
trademark white cassock. But the talk was the same, and at first he moved in
the right direction: street drug trafficking dropped, and he brought the
looting of the treasury under control, raised the minimum wage and cut
bureaucracy by 20%. It was enough to provoke a coup after only seven months.
What was there to indicate that just over a decade later it would be
Aristide's thugs who beat up pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets and
Aristide's government that was accused of corruption - a man they now call
the Mugabe of the Caribbean? There were certainly signs: he had a tendency,
worrying at the time, to talk as though he was in direct communication both
with God and with "his" people. Any leader who believes himself especially
close to both is unlikely to be at heart a democrat.
When Bill Clinton restored Aristide to the presidency in 1994, the US
appeared to be making a serious commitment to putting Haiti on the right
track. Aristide completed the two years left of his term and duly gave way
in Haiti's first peaceful handover, before being re-elected in 2000.
So what went wrong? One lesson is that the injustices of history are hard to
right; take a slave society and punish it heavily for winning its freedom
and you set up a cycle of poverty and violence that will always try to
recur. The US and France, both self-styled beacons of liberty and pioneers
of democracy, owe Haiti a major debt.
Nevertheless, President Clinton spent more than a billion dollars trying to
build this nation of only 10 million souls. Haiti's people may regard their
giant neighbour with suspicion, but they are not hostile to US values.
Thousands of them have risked their lives - like the Cuban rafters - trying
to reach the US on a variety of perilous homemade craft.
But despite the manifest enthusiasm of so many Haitians for the US
lifestyle, US efforts at nation-building in Haiti have been a miserable
failure. The country is being punished again for its political shortcomings,
it is still the poorest in the western hemisphere, up to half its people are
dependent on food aid, and the prospects for the half of the population that
is under 18 are no better than a decade ago.
But was it inevitable that Aristide would grow into a dictator? He was not
evil from the start. Certainly he believed in himself with a messianic
fervour; had he not done so, he would never have become president. But he
was elected with the overwhelming support of a much-abused people who had
invested their hopes in him.
At the point that a dictator is widely reviled by his people, it is easy to
imagine that he imposed his will by force from the beginning. It is rarely
true. Many leaders who were subsequently vilified as dictators came to power
with the support - or at least the negotiated consent - of many of their
people, as often as not because they put an end to a situation that was
worse. Aristide, in his time, was that hope. The challenge of
nation-building is not that of finding the right leader but of ensuring that
when such a man comes to power, the institutions of the state and government
are powerful enough to keep his ambitions within bounds.
Constitutions, as one of Haiti's previous strong men once observed, are made
of paper, but bayonets are made of iron. It is no great surprise that Haiti
has almost no democratic institutions worth the name. The country has rarely
enjoyed enough security to build them.
The bigger surprise of the last few years is how easily allegedly mature
democracies can be cajoled into allowing their own institutions to be
undermined by a strong or a charismatic leader. How would Jean-Bertrand
Aristide have fared as president of the United States or as prime minister
of Britain, where he would have been obliged to talk not only to God and to
the people, but to Congress or to parliament? And how would Tony Blair or
George Bush have come out as president of Haiti, with little to hold
demagoguery in check?
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