U.S. Congress Should Make New Years Resolution for Haiti

Source: International Relations Center 

New Year’s Day has a history of hope for former slaves in the hemisphere: Haiti freed its slaves and declared its independence on New Year’s 1804; 59 years behind its southern neighbor, President Lincoln issued the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But since then hope has been scarce in Haiti. This year the island nation rang in the New Year with a toll of alarm. A massacre in the urban settlement of Cité Soleil on Dec. 22 left over 20 dead and many wounded by gunfire from UN troops. In this article, human rights lawyer Brian Concannon discusses the need to clear up the past in order to move toward future peace. In particular, he urges the U.S. Congress to thoroughly investigate the role of the United States in the 2004 coup d’ etat in Haiti. For more information on Haiti, see related articles (below). For more information on the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a member of the IRC Americas Program U.S.-Latin America Relations Network, see http://americas.irc-online.org/am/3673.

The New Year is a good time for all kinds of resolutions—resolutions to do better next time, resolution of conflicts, resolutions as joint declarations of principles.

This New Year presents a particularly good opportunity for the U.S. Congress to finally resolve to take positive steps toward helping our oldest neighbor in the Americas, by promoting stability, prosperity, and peace in troubled Haiti.

Haiti was the New World’s second independent country, proclaiming its independence from France and the emancipation of slaves on New Year’s Day 1804. The United States did not formally recognize its new neighbor for 58 years, because acknowledging the independence of a country run by former slaves raised too many hard questions about its own commitment to freedom. The United States was trapped in a contradiction between its high-sounding principles—"all men are created equal, and endowed by the creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," etc.—and the brutal reality of our enslavement of millions of fellow human beings.

Freeing Ourselves

Abraham Lincoln took a step toward resolving the moral conflict on June 5, 1862, when he recognized Haiti in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. He took another step three and a half months later by resolving to emancipate all slaves in areas remaining loyal to the rebel Confederacy. True to his word, on New Year’s Day 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, instantly grabbing the moral high ground and making the abolition of slavery the principal issue of the Civil War. The surrenders of Confederate generals in early 1865 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution the following December abolished slavery throughout the United States.

Emancipation freed over four million Americans from the horrors of slavery. But it also freed the rest of the country from the hypocrisy of owning slaves in a nation that claimed to be built on liberty for all.

Ending the hypocrisy also raised America’s international standing. By the 1860s even the former slaveholding countries of Europe had recognized slavery as the evil it always was, and found the United States’s failure to do the same reprehensible. By resolving to eliminate the evil, we earned respect, and friends. The Emancipation Proclamation forced France and England, whose commercial interests would have benefited from an independent Confederacy but whose principles opposed slavery, to stay out of the war.

Practicing What We Preach?

Two hundred years after its independence, Haiti challenged the United States to resolve another conflict between its espoused principles and its foreign policy. This time it was our commitment to democracy that was at issue. On Feb. 29, 2004, Haiti’s 33rd coup d’état forced the constitutional president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, out of the country on a U.S. plane. He was replaced by a brutal dictatorship, led by a hand-picked Prime Minister flown in from Boca Raton, Florida. This regime held on until June 2006, during which time thousands of Haitians were killed in political violence, and Haiti’s democratic institutions were gutted.

President Aristide has accused the Bush administration of playing a key role in his overthrow by supporting his armed and unarmed opponents, weakening his government through a development-assistance embargo, and eventually forcing him into exile. Mr. Aristide’s claim has been echoed by members of the U.S. Congress, the 73 countries of the Africa Union and the Caribbean Community, and millions of Mr. Aristide’s supporters in Haiti. The claim is also supported by reports from human rights groups, documents filed in lawsuits, and by media investigations, including a New York Times investigation published in February 2006.

If these charges are true, the Bush administration’s actions directly contradict the fundamental U.S. commitment to democracy, both here and abroad. President Bush has widely extolled the virtues of democracy as a cornerstone of his foreign policy and criticized other nations for supposed democracy deficits. He has even justified the high toll of the Iraq War as a necessary sacrifice for the promotion of democracy abroad.

The practices that the U.S. has been accused of in Haiti would also constitute a violation of international law and a clear contribution to the deadly reign of terror that enveloped Haiti following Aristide’s departure.

The Bush administration has consistently rejected the allegations. Officials contend that the withholding of aid was not an embargo, but a legitimate effort to force the government to correct election irregularities; that U.S. aid to Haiti fought poverty and helped build democracy; and that President Aristide asked the U.S. government to fly him out of the country after he resigned in the face of a rebel takeover of much of Haitian territory.

Who is right? The best way to resolve these conflicting accounts of the U.S. role in Haiti’s 2004 coup d’état is an impartial, independent inquiry. If the Bush administration did not intervene to destabilize Aristide, it deserves to have the record set straight. If the administration did participate in the overthrow of an elected government, that fact should be publicly established.

U.S. citizens need to be able to hold their government to its principles and Haitians need to know whether they can trust the U.S. government to keep its word. Haitians perceived the hand of the United States behind several of their 33 coups d’état, and know from repeated hard experience that some are already planning #34. They will be reluctant to invest in democracy—through civic participation, long-term planning, resorting to the courts to address grievances, making the system work—unless they have some assurance that the next time their democracy is attacked, their powerful neighbor will support democracy, not the attackers.

Voting for TRUTH

Establishing the truth about the U.S. role in Haiti’s coup is also important for the United States. Although the 2004 coup removed a government that the U.S. government disliked, that "success" was short-lived: as soon as they got the chance, in February 2006, Haitians elected another progressive by a landslide.

The Haiti coup also had high costs to its northern neighbor. The repression and violence generated a spike in refugee flows that placed unwanted pressure on U.S. immigration and homeland security systems. U.S. troops, already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, were stretched thinner by a three-month deployment in Haiti. The post-coup chaos provided shelter to smugglers bringing cocaine from South America through Haiti to the United States.

Allegations of U.S. involvement in Haiti’s coup hurt the country’s international standing, at a time when U.S. popularity has hit a new low throughout the world. Doubts about U.S. actions in Haiti undermine U.S. credibility when we claim that we are trying to establish democracy in Iraq, or criticize other governments as undemocratic, or attempt to stop Sudan and other countries from condoning political killings.

The U.S. Congress may be the only chance for a credible investigation of the U.S. role in Haiti’s coup d’état. Although the Africa Union and the Caribbean Community, which together make up almost one-third of the United Nations’ members, called for a UN independent inquiry in March 2004, the UN declined to investigate and instead sent troops to Haiti to support the illegal Interim Government.

That support, along with shootings and illegal arrests of political dissidents at the hands of the UN troops, makes Haitians distrust the UN’s ability to impartially investigate the coup. Haitian victims of the coup petitioned the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for help. But that body refused to hear their complaints, without even offering an explanation for rejecting the petition.

Unlike the UN, the U.S. Congress can require that Bush administration officials appear at hearings, answer questions under oath, and produce relevant documents. Its inquiry could be balanced, since some members of Congress supported the president’s Haiti policies in 2004, while others opposed them.

Congress already has a vehicle ready for such an investigation: the proposed "Responsibility to Uncover the Truth about Haiti Act," known as the TRUTH Act. The TRUTH Act was originally filed in 2005 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Barbara Lee of California, with 21 co-sponsors. It would appoint a bipartisan, independent commission charged with investigating the February 2004 Haitian coup d’état, and determining whether the U.S. government contributed to the overthrow of the constitutional president, directly or by channeling aid to subversive groups.

The TRUTH Act’s commission would resemble the Iraq Study Group that released its report last month. Commission members would be appointed by Congress (half by Republican leaders, half by Democrats), and would be entrusted with reviewing all the evidence and submitting a final, public report that would include findings, conclusions, and recommendations for corrective measures, if needed.

The TRUTH Act was originally referred to the House International Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, and never surfaced before the end of the 109th Congress. But as the 110th Congress is convened, the TRUTH Act’s time may have come.

After a visit to Haiti in December, Representative Lee promised to re-introduce the TRUTH Act in the new Congress. The new Democratic majority in Congress has an unequivocal mandate to question and investigate the administration’s foreign policy. Although Iraq dominated election-year foreign policy debates, several polls, including an October 2006 poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, demonstrate that the U.S. public wants a cooperative U.S. foreign policy based on respect for our neighbors and for international law.

Last February’s elections in Haiti offer both an opportunity and a challenge for establishing a new direction in U.S.-Haiti relations. The new president, René Préval, has a strong popular mandate, has assembled a competent and credible governance team, and is less controversial than the ousted President Aristide. But President Préval comes from the same progressive Lavalas movement as President Aristide, and his commitments to the vast majority of Haitians who elected him are much the same as his predecessor’s: provide schools, hospitals, and clean water; require the elite to shoulder a fair share of the nation’s tax burden; and pursue economic policies targeted to help the poor.

The Bush administration has opposed similar social policies elsewhere in Latin America as a departure from the neoliberal economic model it prescribes. So our government must make a choice. It can decide to play by the rules of international law and democracy by respecting Haiti’s sovereignty and allowing its government to implement policies that it may disagree with. Or it can continue to try to impose policies through economic and political pressure, and if that does not work again seek to undermine or overthrow Haiti’s elected government.

Congress can help make the right choice by enacting the TRUTH Act. A credible investigation of the U.S. role in Haiti’s 2004 coup would resolve, once and for all, the outstanding controversies about U.S. participation in those events. If the investigation determines that the U.S. government did participate in President Aristide’s overthrow, then Congress and the citizenry would have a clear obligation to eliminate the hypocrisy of preaching democracy while practicing regime change, and build a more coherent and principled foreign policy. Coming clean about U.S. involvement and resolving to chart a new course would win us new friends, especially among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean that justifiably fear they may be next in line for Haiti’s treatment.

President Lincoln once declared that "ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets." This wisdom, coupled with the results of an impartial investigation, could inform the most important resolution of all: a shared commitment by everyone concerned—Haitians and Americans, government officials, candidates, and voters—to allocate political power in Haiti on the basis of local ballots, not bullets or foreign aid.

Human Rights lawyer Brian Concannon Jr. is an analyst with the IRC America’s Program, and directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.HaitiJustice.org.