By David South
Id Magazine (Canada), October 31 to November 13, 1996
Canadian troops are not only on the frontline of peacekeeping in Haiti but also the frontline of U.S. foreign policy – a policy that is unravelling during the run-up to the November 5 presidential election. While the living standards of Haitians in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere continue to decline despite free elections, Canadian troops are charged with keeping the island nation peaceful. It’s a task that is proving more and more difficult as Haiti suffers a crime wave and violent political unrest.
While American president Bill Clinton tries to snatch another victory from a grumpy U.S. electorate, his advisors are desperately trying to keep the lid on his foreign policy “victories” in Bosnia and Haiti.
Things are so bad, Clinton sent his secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and his national security advisor, Anthony Lake, to Haiti on August 30 in response to high-profile assassinations of right-wing leaders.
“The administration are hoping, with fingers crossed, nothing will happen before November 5,” says Larry Birn of the Washington-based Centre for Hemispheric Affairs. “What the United States would like to do is cryogenically freeze all its foreign policy engagements so they don’t produce any problems. But we are losing very valuable time in Haiti because of Washington’s paralysis over negative developments occurring there.
“Washington didn’t realize an economic success story had to be bred there in a couple of years. The USAID programme is a scandal waiting for an investigation.”
There is also another election-year factor: Republicans are not fond of anything that whiffs of a humanitarian approach to Haiti. Since they dominate Congress, this is also Clinton’s problem.
Given the history of American support for dictatorships in Haiti, the Clinton administration has chosen a low-key approach. After the 1994 invasion, the Americans pulled out the vast majority of their troops within a year, handing over responsibility for internal security to a UN peacekeeping force. But the U.S. never fully cut itself off from interfering in Haiti, keeping a military base operating in the country’s only industrial park in Port-au-Prince.
And Canada is key to U.S. plans because of that sour legacy. Canadians are seen as free from the burden of colonialism, and as a plus, our 700 mostly French-speaking troops can communicate better with the local population.
This policy has gone as far as hiring a Canadian public relations company to promote structural adjustment programmes that are conditional upon Haiti receiving any foreign aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both based in Washington.
Gilles Morin is co-ordinating manager for Montreal firm Gervais-Gagnon-Covington Associates, who won the contract. Morin says, while his company did win the contract, like many other things to do with Haiti, they have heard nothing since Fall 1995 because of disorganization.
“On a personal basis there was a strong anti-American feeling among the population because of the past,” says Morin. “A lot of the financial institutions are based in Washington and they needed international support because banks in Washington are seen as American.”
But there is a risk that a switch in U.S. priorities during the heat of an election will endanger Canadian troops.
“If the president feels he has political risk in Haiti, he’s not going to take Canadian concerns into consideration,” warns Birns. “The UN mission gets caught up in the wake of U.S. efforts and it’s not able to define an independent course. Right now, the problem really is the USAID mission in Haiti is a total failure. The international donor function, you couldn’t exaggerate how disappointing it’s been in terms of almost no relief. The unemployment rate of 80 per cent is exactly what the unemployment rate was when the UN arrived.”
On August 28, American troops from the 82nd Airborne plopped down on the streets of Port-au-Prince to spend a week patrolling. Many observers questioned the motives for this intervention. Was it to say to Haitians the UN isn’t the real deal, and if they get out of line, the Americans will kick their butts? Why doesn’t Canada protest the U.S. undermining the credibility of our peacekeeping mission?
To Birn, sending in the 82nd was the foreign-policy equivalent of fast-food. “Sending in the 82nd Airborne merely aimed at getting a one-day headline,” he says. “The administration’s position has been staked on the fact there has been a number of foreign policy wins. But each of these victories is held together by corn starch and could unravel at any moment.”
Birn sees an escalation in political violence just around the corner. He fears the current economic crisis will help the formation of a violent left-wing guerrilla movement to rival existing right-wing paramilitaries.
“Without former president Jean Bertrand Aristide,” he explains, “there is growing apprehension that president Rene Preval will not be able to project a sufficient leadership to keep the average Haitian, who is sacrificing with no expectation of an improved standard of living, happy.”
While it has been almost two years since Haiti was the media’s darling, observers point out the cycle of violence has returned to the country’s streets despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and American troops.
When id reported from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in July (id July 11 to 24, Number 18), it was obvious no progress had been made to improve the standard of living or rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
In an ironic twist, attempts to step up deportations of Haitian-Americans convicted of crimes in the U.S. has led to an increase in killings in Haiti according to the October 22 issue of New York weekly, The Village Voice.
More and more, the UN troops are propping up an increasingly unpopular government. A government that is seen by many Haitians to be getting its orders from Washington, not Port-au-Prince. Canadian troops lead the UN mission in Haiti and make up 700 of the 1500 soldiers stationed there (the rest are from Pakistan and Bangladesh).
There is a serious danger Canadian troops will be caught in the crossfire of any uprising or coup attempt, since Canadian troops shadow president Rene Preval 24 hours a day and also guard the National Palace, which was attacked August 20, killing two Haitians.