President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has fled his country in a recurrence of the violent disorder that has haunted the history of Haiti over and over again. Superficially, this should not be so. Some 95% of the population is descended from slaves. Haiti, which is smaller than Maryland, has a population of less than 7 million. All of this suggests a place where folks would be neighborly with one another.
For several centuries, however, Haiti has been a slaughterhouse whose inhabitants have butchered each other. On several occasions, the United States has intervened to establish a state of peace under democratic rule. Aristide, a liberal Catholic priest, was reinstated by the United States after he was forced into exile, despite having been elected to his post. Ironically, Aristide proceeded to become a despot, brutally suppressing protest that opposed his rule, no matter how peaceful.
How does one explain this? The answer for Haiti is the same as it is for Iraq. Both countries have been shaped by forces that make the democratic way of life nearly impossible. Let’s start with geography. Haiti, which means “land of mountains,” is a Caribbean version of our own Appalachia, where families like the Hatfields and the McCoys, each in its own secluded valley, waged war against each other starting in the late 19th century. (The elders of these two warring clans signed a peace pact last year.) Haiti is in toto composed of clans coming from contrary “hollers.”
By the 18th century, four major movements were in formation: slaves, liberated slaves, the French and the Creoles, originally the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors who were born in the West Indies. Members of these distinct groups intermarried, and their offspring, called “mulattos,” although a minority in the population, have over the years become the single most dominant political element.
As in almost any land that has been torn by internal conflict, out of that chaos comes an order imposed by the rule of an iron hand. From 1905 to 1947, the United States tried to clean up the mess by taking economic and military control of Haiti. But to no avail. In 1957, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier took over, ruling with a harsh hand. When he stepped down, he put his equally brutal son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in power. Oppression and corruption drove the educated and the economic elite out of the country. Amid the consequent chaos, the military stepped in, and Haiti held its first real election. The winner was Aristide, who after seven months was toppled by a coup. So after being reinstated with American help, Aristide decided that to stay in power he needed to act mean. And so Haiti is once again in turmoil.
The U.S. delegation sent to Haiti to negotiate a compromise between Aristide and those eager to be rid of him threw up its hands in despair and departed.
So, here is a history lesson on the limits of an outside power democratizing a nation at the point of a bayonet. We couldn’t do it in Haiti — a few miles off the American coast. But we allege that we can do it in Iraq, a country millions of miles away with a culture rooted many millennia ago in the biblical land of the Tigris-Euphrates valley.