03/16/04 — Haiti: A large commitment of troops may be unwise

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Haiti: A large commitment of troops may be unwise

Watching the heartbreak of Haiti’s hunger and violence on television, it is clear that rich nations like the United States must step in — at least to relieve the hunger. Whether we should get involved in the violence is problematic. President Bush has already sent 1,600 “peacekeeping” troops, mostly Marines, to help disarm roving gangs of rebels and robbers. In the process, much to the astonishment of some Americans, the Marines have found it necessary to shoot and kill a few Haitians. We shouldn’t be surprised. That is what Marines do — kill people. If they were ordered not to use their weapons, they wouldn’t be very effective peacekeepers. Some also wouldn’t survive. Even now, some Americans could be killed, and if they are, they probably will die for no useful lasting purpose. Our military objective, and that of France, Canada and Chile which also have troops there, is stability.Yet, there has not been long-term stability in Haiti since Christopher Columbus was on the island of Hispaniola — which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic — in 1492. Haiti’s history is one of bloody revolution. Its government has rarely changed hands peacefully, and it has also been subject to forays from outside. Even a river is named for violence. The stream that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic is called the Massacre River, named for the slaughter of 30 pirates by Spanish colonials in 1728. Later, it was the site of the massacre of thousands of Haitians by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937. Haiti has been ruled by soldiers and dictators for most of its history — most famously, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc” during much of the last half-century. The last time America got deeply involved in Haiti’s affairs was 1994 when President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops there to ensure that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been elected president, was restored to office. He was, but he was a disappointment. Although Aristide is a former priest, his regime was not without its brutality. He won another term in 2000 in an election whose legitimacy is in doubt. Haiti’s economy is in shambles, and protesters have caused riots during the last few weeks. Aristide finally left for Africa, later saying that U.S. agents kidnapped him and his family and put them on a plane. The United States denies it. With Aristide claiming to be the rightful president of Haiti, Boniface Alexandre has taken over as interim president in the capital of Port-au-Prince. So conflict continues, and it could quite easily become armed conflict as soon as the so-called peacekeepers are out of sight. If so, what have we gained? President Bush would be wise to limit the number of American troops that he commits to Haiti. But Americans should not be restrained in our efforts to help feed the hungry and build the economy. Haiti is a subtropical country suitable for growing coffee, sugarcane and rice, among other crops. But the economy is disorganized and 6.4 million of Haiti’s 8 million people live in poverty. You get an idea what that’s like from news pictures of youngsters stealing dried beans off the dirty warehouse floor and of a man making clay cakes to be eaten in place of food. Some organizations, such as the Red Cross and U.N. relief agencies, are shipping food to Haiti. Others should join in. Whatever the problems that cause the country to remain in such appalling poverty, they are not the fault of the starving children.

Published in Editorials on March 16, 2004 12:35 PM