As United Nations troops pull out of Haiti on Sunday, three years after the United States intervened to restore the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Clinton administration and its supporters claim Haitian policy has been a success and we should stay the course. Conservative Republican critics say the policy is a failure and we should pull the plug. They're both wrong.
Ironically, today marks another important date in Haiti. Ten years ago, armed men attacked voters waiting in line to elect a new president, killing at least 30 people in the capital alone and leading to the election's cancellation. Today, most Haitians have no fear of voting - but democracy and international support have brought so little change in their lives that they have scant interest in participating.
Limited success for US
The aim of America's Haitian policy has been to restore democracy and jump-start the economy. It's had limited success. A violent and repressive army has been abolished. A new national civilian police force is still weak but seems sufficiently consolidated to ensure stability when international troops leave. The political process is at an impasse, but even that is better than coups and repression. Two of every 3 Haitians are unemployed, and 85 percent live in poverty. But people are not fleeing the country by thousands in rickety boats.
Still, these are slim pickings when placed beside the promises and hopes that accompanied military intervention and the supporting international aid program. Some $2.8 billion in aid - sent or pledged - held out the promise of building infrastructure, modernizing the state, restoring economic growth, and alleviating poverty. There are precious few signs of any of this. Instead, there are rutted roads, a weak and ineffective state, stagnant growth, and poverty.
Politically, the picture is no better. A dynamic grass-roots movement that helped topple the Duvalier dictatorship and elect Mr. Aristide has been sidelined and largely demobilized. Political ambition and opportunism are the order of the day as a program of privatizing nine state enterprises has become the fault-line of Haitian politics, bringing the country's political process to a standstill and holding up more than $100 million in international aid.
Within US politics, the lives of 7 million Haitians have become a political football as the two parties tussle to define US policy as a success or failure.
The truth is that three years after the intervention, US and international policy in Haiti has been no great success. Too much was expected too quickly on the economic and political fronts. Changes sought in three to five years likely will take a generation. Democracy that goes beyond periodic elections and encompasses responsibility, compromise, and commitment to a broader vision of the national interest will need more time to take root.
But now is not the time to give up on Haiti. The large international investment has produced limited but important gains, particularly in the areas of public security and in generating economic stability that could lay the basis for genuine development. Continued engagement will produce slow improvements, strengthening institutions and restoring economic growth.
Now for the long term
Now is the time to begin crafting a new, long-term international approach. It should begin with clear expectations from all the major players and some important changes:
International support cannot be a blank check. Haitian politicians must understand that international aid will be linked to political responsibility on their part. Resolution of the current political impasse and implementation of a negotiated program of economic reforms are a fair and reasonable quid pro quo for continued aid flows.
International donors should commit for the long haul. But greater emphasis should be placed on development in the rural sector, where some two-thirds of Haitians live, and on long-term strategies to create jobs and alleviate the country's crippling burden of poverty.
Republicans and Democrats here should throw in the towel on Haiti as a partisan political issue. Three years after the US intervention, Haiti is neither a clear success story nor an obvious failure, and the political capital to be gained from either definition is now limited. A bipartisan approach that depoliticizes Haiti and focuses on development and humanitarian concerns has the potential for gradually raising the living standards and hopes of 7 million poor people.
Continued political jockeying in Washington may reap a bipartisan political and human tragedy as deteriorating political and economic conditions force Haitians out to sea in boats once again.
* Hugh Byrne is a fellow and Rachel Neild a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.