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Aristide sends mixed messages

Posted: Thursday, March 04, 2004

WASHINGTON As the State Department tells it, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was fatalistic about the demise of his government. ''That's life sometimes,'' Aristide reportedly told the U.S. Embassy's No. 2 official, Luis Moreno, two hours before the Haitian leader's dawn Sunday departure into exile.

According to this account, there was no coercion.

Aristide has been telling American supporters from his temporary quarters in the Central African Republic, however, that he was abducted by the U.S. military and spirited out of Haiti by force.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said ''the true democracy'' led by Aristide has been ended by an administration ''anxious to get rid of him.''

Lee belongs to a small but vocal minority who look on Aristide as a democratic hero; Republicans generally believe there was nothing democratic about his administration.

All agree Haiti is in crisis. Unhappily, another political disaster may be looming not far to Haiti's south, where the U.S. stakes may be much higher.

In the once-stable democracy of Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier, riots broke out across the nation Tuesday before an expected announcement that Venezuela's opposition failed to gather sufficient signatures for a referendum on whether President Hugo Chavez should be recalled. Opposition leaders allege a pro-Chavez bias in the signature count.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told senators Tuesday that the continuing ''crisis of governance'' in Venezuela is a matter of grave U.S. concern.

The United States has virtually no ability to facilitate a democratic outcome because of bad blood between Washington and Caracas. Chavez, an ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has accused the United States of conspiring against his government.

Instability in Haiti and Venezuela mirrors a growing regional pattern. On Sunday, Haiti became the sixth hemispheric country since 1999 to have an unscheduled change in government.

In contrast to Venezuela, the United States has no vital economic interests in Haiti. But political instability in Haiti has led in the past to unwelcome boat migrations to Florida; in recent weeks, the administration has acted to guard against that again.

Administration critics have warned that Aristide's U.S.-encouraged departure could lead to a power grab by leaders of armed rebel groups responsible for recent politically motivated violence.

One such leader, Guy Philippe, on Tuesday declared himself the new chief of Haiti's military. After U.S. troops reinstated Aristide to power in 1994, he disbanded the military. Philippe apparently plans to reconstitute it, perhaps with the forces he leads.

The State Department said Tuesday that armed rebel groups have no role in the process now under way to form a successor government in Haiti. It demanded that the rebels lay down their arms.

Also expressing political ambitions is Louis-Jodel Chamblain, who led death squads and was implicated in the killing of thousands of Aristide supporters.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, while declining to defend Aristide, has said that Bush allowed the Haiti crisis to fester too long. Kerry said Aristide's allegations that he was coerced into leaving should be investigated.

Doug Bandow, of the libertarian Cato Institute, says Haiti's history suggests democracy may be beyond reach regardless of what the United States does or how many international security forces are sent there.

''Haiti has been a failed state for 200 years,'' Bandow says.

''There never was a time when the country was not in chaos, the people were not poor and the government was not unstable. There was no democracy to restore in 1994 and there is none now.''

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.



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