Wednesday, March 10, 2004

"Haiti's Bad Actors"

That's how the Washington Post entitled two letters to the editor published in today's paper, including one by me. Mine was edited a bit from the original (see March 7th below), but it was actually an improvement. You can compare the two versions for "lessons learned" on pithier--and somewhat less preachy--letter writing.

The Post juxtaposed my letter with one from American University professor Phil Brenner. He criticized an earlier article, by a different reporter, for downplaying the nasty credentials of such illustrious thugs as Guy Philippe.

However, I hope that no one who reads both these pieces feels the need to choose one perspective over another. I agree wholeheartedly with Brenner's point, as I hope he would agree with mine. As the subtitle suggests, one can't idolize any of the major actors in the current political landscape.

If you've read Amy Wilentz's empassioned piece in The Nation, posted on March 4th, you might be inclined toward a somewhat more benevolent view of Aristide. After all, she writes, Aristide "didn't start out to be a brutal dictator: History and events and the international community and his own flawed character conspired against him." This piece, written in the bitter aftermath of his departure, calls what happened to Aristide over the years "a chronic coup."

However, if you liked that piece by her, you also have to read her op-ed in the LA Times, published on Sunday, March 7th, entitled "Fall from Grace." Although she explicitly identifies "the Haitian elite, the political class, the business community, the exploiters of Haitian labor, conservatives in the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince" as those who conspired to bring him down, she focuses largely on Aristide's own responsibility for his demise:

"Aristide insisted that everything he did was in service of the Haitian people. Thus, anyone who criticized him — personally or politically — was shunned as an enemy of the people. (For the last four years, because of things I've written questioning his actions, I have fallen into this depressing category.) He was quick to justify his ambition and his methods, and the dramatic, tragic story of the Haitian people from 1990 on became inextricably intertwined with the dramatic, tragic narrative of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

It proved impossible for Aristide to switch comfortably from opposition leader to president. As president, it was much harder for him to have the give and take with average Haitians that had been his daily political bread. Giving up his ministry, marrying and having children brought him down from an exalted position in the average Haitian's eyes to the level of a mortal politician. It was also impossible for him to hold power to public account, because he was now power. In addition, the art of compromise and consensus did not really excite Aristide: He was suspicious of other people's motives. He undoubtedly felt justified in his suspicions after the 1991 coup d'état that forced him into exile.

...Although he was a major player in his downfall, he certainly does not bear full responsibility.

...The gold wristwatch that replaced his faithful Casio, and the big white suburban house that is now in ruins, are indicators of how — in many small, incremental ways — Aristide moved away from his power base. But it was a still-polarized Haiti — self-destructive and dependent on the whim of the hardhearted outside world, a country Aristide did not know how to cure — that, after lifting him up so high, took him down."

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