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Posted April 11, 2003
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Haitians Aren't Amused By the Clinton-Aristide Lovefest
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady

Bill Clinton's trip to Port-au-Prince on Tuesday was supposed to be all about his Clinton Foundation's fight against AIDS. Haiti is indeed engaged in a brutal battle against the disease. Yet even so, locals didn't seem too happy to have the former president calling on Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Thoughtful policy types, Haitian and otherwise, who are interested in righting the capsized nation largely ignored the visit (photos).

In fact, what is fascinating about the Clinton voyage is the stark contrast between the glory Mr. Clinton insists on for his Haitian protégé and the disdain that so many Haitians -- once strong supporters of Mr. Aristide -- now have for their president.

This is especially evident among intellectuals and elites, who increasingly write and speak about Mr. Aristide as a man that cultivates a culture of fear and has destroyed a nascent democracy.

At least part of the resentment about the Clinton appearance in the Haitian capital centered on allegations of corruption. There are unflattering but unavoidable suspicions of the relationship between the Haitian president and Clinton Democrats who went into the long distance telephone business with him after his return to power in 1994.

Haiti's Patriotic Movement for National Salvation (MPSN), which hopes that Mr. Aristide's failed government will soon fold, issued a press release on April 8 impugning Mr. Clinton's motives. "Did the former American leader invest in important economic sectors and does he feel the need to safeguard his interests in the post-Aristide era," the MPSN asked.

During his one-day visit Mr. Clinton declared, "I think there should be a humanitarian exception to the embargo on aid," acording to the Associated Press. A call for funneling large sums of money into any place so notoriously corrupt should raise eyebrows. But this case creates an even greater miasma. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Aristide's wife Mildred, who calls the shots in Haiti's shady telecom business, coordinates the national effort to combat AIDS.

Another point of contention for Haitians was Mr. Clinton's use of the term "embargo" to describe the freeze on aid. It is rhetoric that Mr. Aristide is also fond of but it is inaccurate; an embargo is a prohibition against commerce. Moreover, the freeze could be lifted today if Mr. Aristide would comply with some minimal levels of democratic civility. Unfortunately Mr. Clinton did not mention this.

For ardent defenders of Mr. Aristide such as the Congressional Black Caucus or for Caribbean ambassadors to the U.S. who dislike George W. Bush and have been known to actively support Mr. Clinton's wife, the plea for more international aid for Haiti might have settled some debts. But for those serious about the Haitian struggle, what appears to be relentless Clinton advocacy for the Aristide presidency is disturbing.

The generalized disgust with the Mr. Aristide's tactics is by no means limited to the sphere of his ideological enemies. Plenty of critics today were once supporters. In the New York Review of Books, Peter Dailey, who describes himself as a journalist who was sympathetic to Mr. Aristide in the early 1990s, has written a two-part review of "Haiti's Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy" by Robert Fatton, Jr.

Among other things, the Fatton book traces the historical roots of Haiti's "predatory democracy," a place where, Mr. Dailey writes, "government remains the primary route to power and wealth." Thus it is not surprising that Mr. Aristide has become another in a long line of authoritarian Haitian leaders.

In Part I of his review, on March 13 Mr. Dailey explains what Bill Clinton seems to still not understand. "Aristide's oppoents turned out to be neither the entrenched economic elite nor the die-hard elements of the old Duvalieriste party, as almost everyone in 1994 might have anticipated, but the social democratic-constitutionalist wing of the Lavalas movement, the left-wing-populist coalition that first brought Aristide to power, which was mobilized into opposition by the Aristide government's increasingly corrupt and authoritarian character."

As Mr. Aristide' party broke apart in the mid-1990s a deep rift grew between himself and the idealists who helped him to power. Writes Mr. Dailey: "Aristide was now opposed by veterans of the anti-Duvalier struggle and almost all of the left, persons who had stood with him in the Eighties and fought for his return from exile. Among the disaffected former supporters are virtually all of Haiti's leading intellectuals and artists, the persons who had best articulated the humane values that should be at the basis of any new Haitian society."

"By 1999, it seemed to many Haitians that Aristide, who once personified Haitian aspirations for democracy, now represented Haitian democracy's biggest obstacle," Mr. Dailey says.

Nor are Aristide critics limited to Haiti. In Washington, as well, some members of congress are admitting the failure of Haitian democracy. On Feb. 5, during a Senate hearing on Haitian migrants, Senator Edward Kennedy had this to say about the situation: "When Haiti elected its first democratic president in 1990, we had a great hope for economic and political stability and respect for basic rights. But even Aristide has failed to bring in a new era of peace and prosperity.

"Instead, we have seen escalating political violence. Illegal arrests, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, killings, crackdowns on political opponents, and restraints on free speech and free assembly are all too common. In the last six months, we have seen new waves of violence, targeting journalists, students, human-rights activists, and the government's political opponents. Those who comit these harsh acts of brutality and intolerance often operate with impunity, and in some cases, they appear to be acting with government support."

By now even a zombie would recognize how thoroughly discredited Mr. Aristide is and how critical international pressure is to altering the situation. Which raises the question of why Mr. Clinton doggedly pursues his cozy relationship with the Haitian president.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal of April 11, 2003.

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