Haiti: Why The Coup Matters

France's ambassador to Haiti was one of the first to see armored cars moving in on President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Port-au-Prince home. He raced to the house and managed to pull the president into his bulletproof car, but not before soldiers had killed one Aristide bodyguard. On a frantic ride to the presidential palace, Aristide, his suit splattered with his bodyguard's blood, watched as soldiers fired at civilians. At the palace, the president was suddenly arrested by troops apparently led by the very man Aristide had put in control of the Army only last June, Brig. Gen. Raoul Cedras. "They tied him up; all they need to do now is throw a tire around his neck. My God, my God, my God," a soldier sobbed over Army Radio. Necklacing-or Pere Lebrun, as the Haitians call it, after a local tire importer-might have seemed poetic justice to Aristide's foes. Upon his return from a U.S. tour, the president had called execution by burning tire a "beautiful instrument." Aristide escaped to Caracas only after last-ditch French, American and Venezuelan appeals.

Such political lawlessness is not supposed to be welcome in George Bush's new world order. The Bush administration's condemnation of the Sept. 29 coup in Haiti was even stronger than its initial reaction to the Soviet putsch. "This junta is illegitimate," Secretary of State James Baker told an emergency session of the Organization of American States. "Until President Aristide's government is restored, this junta will be treated as a pariah. . . . " Bush cut off $90 million in U.S. aid to Haiti, froze Haitian assets in the United States and welcomed Aristide to the Oval Office; the OAS sent a delegation to tell the Army to back off.

But the Army wasn't budging. "How can Father Aristide come back again to power?" asked one senior Haitian military man. "Eight thousand men [in the armed forces], who are supposed to protect him, hate him so much." At most, the officer said, the Army would accept a new provisional president, followed by elections.

So the challenge remained: would the United States back up its words with force? Though the president dispatched a contingent of Marines to the U.S. Naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he was disinclined to send them into action, except possibly as part of a U.S.Latin peacekeeping force, or if American lives were in danger. This was, after all, tiny, impoverished Haiti, a black republic long dismissed by U.S. foreign policymakers as chronically ungovernable and peripheral to American strategy. Unlike the gulf, where Bush feared Saddam's control of oil would feed his nuclear program, or Panama, where drug trafficking and control of the canal were key U.S. concerns, no significant interests were believed at stake. U.S. officials also invoked Latin sensitivity over American intervention. "It makes no sense to risk our standing in the hemisphere when we think we can say boo and they'll leave," said a senior administration official. "Harsh rhetoric will take care of this problem." Aristide, himself a longtime critic of American "imperialism," eschewed a call for troops.

Haiti makes an instructive case study in the vagaries of Bush's still ill-defined new world order. As originally enunciated, the NWO seemed basically to mean U.S.-led multilateral action to deter aggression of the kind practiced by Saddam. That committed the United States to nothing more than the defense of existing international boundaries. Hence Bush permitted Saddam Hussein to remain in power for fear of causing a breakup of Iraq, and hesitated to recognize the Baltics in deference to Moscow's remaining sovereignty.

But this raised troubling questions about the moral content of Bush's vision. What is sacrosanct about existing borders, given that many ethnic groups have plausible claims to their traditional land? Bush seems to agree in the case of the Palestinians--but not the Kurds, or Yugoslavia's Croats and Slovenes. And some threats to international order stem from violence or political repression within the borders of a single country. Doesn't "order" depend to some extent on the spread of democracy? Bush seems to think so in Cuba, but not in China. The president sometimes professes ambivalence about interfering in other countries' internal matters (the clash between Moscow and Lithuania, for example). But he has plunged into the affairs of Kuwait, Iraq and Panama.

To be sure, consistency is hard to achieve in international affairs, but it matters in Haiti because of the coup's implications for Latin America. For years, the United States has been preaching elected civilian government in the Western Hemisphere. As the president indignantly pointed out to a Miami audience again last week, only Fidel Castro's Cuba remains untouched by the region's trend toward elections. But, as the administration is well aware, if the United States permits a military coup to succeed in Haiti, its position, and that of the hemisphere's new civilian rulers, could be undermined.

The administration's newfound sensitivity toward Latin sovereignty may be genuine--or a convenient excuse to stay out of the one place it doesn't want to get into. In any case, Latin civilian presidents' anti-interventionism seems to be receding before their fears of their own militaries. Last June in Chile, the OAS authorized "any measures deemed appropriate" to deal with a coup in a member state. This week OAS foreign ministers reserved the right "to adopt all additional measures which maybe necessary and appropriate" to reinstate Aristide--a clear reference to military force. Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez told NEWSWEEK that "if the diplomatic measures produce no result, then I would be in favor of a collective [military] intervention ... Nonintervention in this case would be intervention in favor of a dictator." A possible model: the West African peacekeeping force sent to stem the bloodbath in Liberia-as U.S. Marines waited offshore.

A bloodbath may well be on the way in Haiti, where Western diplomats say 350 to 500 people have already been killed. General Cedras stepped forward to head the new government, but some wonder if he is in control-or simply the captive "leader" of a revolt from below. In Port-au-Prince, trigger-happy soldiers patrolled the streets in commandeered cars and pickups. Radio Lumiere broadcast reports of an Army massacre of 40 people in the Carrefour area, apparently in retaliation for the killing of two soldiers. "The soldiers forced people to go dig graves [for the victims]," one man in Carrefour told NEWSWEEK'S Peter Katel. A local houngan, or voodoo priest, said soldiers shot randomly into houses. Minutes after this interview, soldiers appeared, confiscated Katel's notes and ordered him at gunpoint to leave the area.

Revered as a demigod by the Haitian people, who elected him last December with nearly 70 percent of the vote, Aristide is a Roman Catholic priest with no governmental experience and vague Marxist views. Recently he had taken a pragmatic turn, adopting austerity policies to win foreign credits.

But he remained a product of his country's demagogic political culture. In August a mob showed up outside the National Assembly and threatened to burn alive any assemblyman who voted to censure Aristide's prime minister. (The Assembly backed down.) Aristide's pro-Pere Lebrun speech was the last straw for a military already furious over the president's creation of a French-trained 50-man presidential security detail answerable only to him. Even some Haitian democrats likened that move to "Papa Doc" Duvalier's founding of the dread Tonton Macoutes. The Army presented the OAS delegation with a confession from a prison guard who says Aristide told him by phone to kill Roger Lafontant, the jailed former Macoute boss. Diplomats in Port-au-Prince believe ordering Lafontant's execution may in fact have been one of Aristide's last acts during the coup.

Most Haitians, as well as the United States and its allies, nevertheless regard Aristide as Haiti's only possible legitimate ruler. Many were warning of a mass revolt by his supporters if he is not returned to power-or a bloody vendetta against the Army if he is. That suggests that if outside forces from the United States, Latin America or both restore Aristide, they would have to remain to keep order. "There is no center in Haiti," says one U.S. expert on the country. "If it came to sending a peacekeeping force, it'll have to be a not-insignificant number of troops for a long time." In 1915, the U.S. Marines waded into a similar crisis in Haiti and stayed for 19 years. The Haitian Guard they trained evolved into today's Army. Haiti's economic and social crises may be the best reason to hope diplomatic pressure alone will force the junta to negotiate. They may also explain why, even in the new world order, George Bush thinks the short flight to Haiti is too far for his soldiers.