By belatedly introducing U.S. and foreign forces into Haiti following the February 29 ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Washington has guaranteed that Haiti’s deeply scarred society is unlikely to easily recuperate from the wounds inflicted on it by foreign and domestic villains, including current interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s government. Of all those who played a role in bringing down Aristide’s constitutional rule, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s reputation is most likely to be tarnished. In effect, he willingly became the captive of the Bush administration’s obsessive right-wing ideologues-the fateful sons of former Senator Jesse Helms-led by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Fisk, and former White House aide Otto Reich.
Powell, who earlier hurt his highly-regarded reputation by assuring the American public of the reliability of what turned out to be either fake or exaggerated intelligence findings that provided the justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at least occasionally addressed hemispheric issues. One cannot say the same of his announced successor, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. A search of her public statements on Latin American issues produces very thin gruel. In what may very well have been her most profound statement involving hemispheric issues, Rice chided Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson for admitting the exiled Aristide into his country so he could reunite with his family.
Aside from superficial barrages aimed at the regional “bad boys,” Castro and Chávez, Rice has shown neither a substantial interest nor a particular competence regarding the region. She almost certainly will use her Cold War-bred intellectual credentials to hunt down any leftwing manifestations in the region. What less ideological eyes would see as a new generation of populist leaders, in Rice’s hawkish vision the current leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay appear as potential leftist enemies who pose a threat to vital U.S. national interests. Be it extending the perimeter of the White House’s anti-terrorism war or upgrading U.S. Southern Command’s sphere of operation, under Rice’s jurisdiction, the Cold War will soon be brought to Latin America.
Powell’s End Game
Powell’s Haitian policy, dazzlingly inept to the very end, will cause a particular blot on his tenure as Secretary of State. Recalling that only days before Aristide’s ouster, which the State Department ordered and arranged, the Secretary repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy of Aristide’s rule and denounced the “thugs” among the violent opposition. Powell also insisted that the opposition should not be allowed to shoot their way to power, nor would Aristide be asked to resign. As he became more engaged in the issue, Powell called upon the anti-Aristide opposition to negotiate with the government and reaffirmed that Washington would not sanction regime change or insist upon Aristide’s forced ouster. Yet, scarcely twenty-four hours before Aristide’s induced flight into exile, Powell reversed his previous decisions, announcing that aid would not be sent to Aristide unless the opposition agreed to it, which of course the rebels would never do. By then ignoring Haiti’s constitution, which stipulated that a president can only convey his resignation to the country’s legislature and not to some self-denominated Washington viceroy, the Secretary helped implement the script to oust Aristide from power.
Aristide had done nothing to justify the U.S.’s complete reversal. While Powell’s rhetoric at the time appeared to represent the high road on the issue, he continuously was being undermined by Noriega and Reich in their off-the-record briefings to journalists and other interested parties. In contrast to Powell’s line, these background press sessions given by his aides implied that regime change was very much an option, and that Aristide could be muscled aside in any negotiation process.
Powell must now accept that on the eve of his departure from office, his protracted honeymoon with the public is now at an end, and his moral fiber seen as little different to that of Noriega or Reich. In reality, Powell already had given himself away several months ago when he demanded that the presidents of Mexico and Chile sack their UN ambassadors for having the audacity to vote against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Today, Haiti is admittedly a horrific mess, but this should not be solely attributed to President Aristide’s “flawed performance,” as the Secretary of State all too facilely maintains. If Aristide was flawed, it was largely due to the impossible conditions laid down by Washington for him to rule.
A Bankrupt Policy
There is simply no disputing the fact that the extremism and mean-spirited nature of Washington’s Haitian policy helped to prevent democratic practices from taking root on the island. In the end, Powell must be condemned for sponsoring a policy that was superficial, illogical, narrowly conceptualized and damaging both to U.S. national interests and Haiti’s most basic human needs. Any hope that the kind of human misery that has propelled thousands of Haitians over the past decade to risk their lives trying to reach Florida can be assuaged by throwing the country open to a demented political process must be seen as one of Powell’s illusions and another example of his huge disservice to Latin America.
LARRY BIRNS is director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
COHA Research Associates David R. Kolker and Jenna Michelle Liut assisted in the research for this article.