Sunday, January 04, 2009

Politics of brutality


Politics of brutality

A veteran diplomat explores the minefields of Haiti after the ouster of Aristide


AN ENCOUNTER WITH HAITI: Notes of a Special Adviser

Reginald Dumas. Medianet. 313 pages. $24.95.

The Miami Herald

(Read the original article here)

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Reginald Dumas was a veteran diplomat by the time then-United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed him as his Special Adviser on Haiti in February 2004. Dumas sorely needed those accumulated decades of experience as he arrived in the Caribbean nation only days after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with heavily armed factions still poised in opposition to one another and the future of Haiti's eight million-plus people far from certain.

Aristide's overthrow and its immediate aftermath forms the bulk of Dumas' highly readable and incisive examination of the way the international community has tried -- and often failed -- to engage constructively with Haiti in recent years. Though the book occasionally detours into accounts of arcane intra-agency squabbling, it nonetheless represents a welcome example of a Caribbean intellectual writing about Haiti's gifted, resourceful people and often shockingly brutal political culture with a clear-eyed, unsentimental gaze, something that has often been missing in regional discourses on the subject.

Dumas states flatly early on that Aristide ''had done a first-class job of helping dig his own political grave. . . . acquiring for himself a reputation at home which did not match the great respect with which he was held abroad.'' Recounting the burning down of opposition party houses and headquarters following an attack on Haiti's National Palace in December 2001, the collapse of a government-endorsed pyramid investment scheme in mid-2002 and the savage beating of students and faculty by mobs acting in collusion with police in December 2003, Dumas concludes that Aristide was ''engulfed . . . [by] the syndrome of the autocrat'' during his second mandate as Haiti's president, which commenced in February 2001.

In his account of his attempts to smooth the way for a U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping mission (which currently numbers at around 9,000 and helped provide security for the presidential ballot that saw René Préval return to power in 2006), Dumas does not spare the international community his opprobrium.

Dumas recounts Haiti's long and tortuous relationship with the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), of which it is the poorest and most populous member. He faults CARICOM for failing to recognize that there might be legitimate opposition to Aristide's rule and (unlike the U.N. or the Organization of American States) for endorsing the disputed May 2000 legislative elections as ``identifying with one of their own.''

Looking on in bemusement as Latin American nations such as Brazil and Chile move into the void left by CARICOM's ineffectualness, Dumas writes that Haiti's current plight is the end result of ''decades of foreign hostility, pillage and intervention, and of despotic and corrupt administration at home,'' to say nothing of the ''vibrant cynicism of the moneyed class'' there.

In using Haiti as a springboard to urge the clarification of future U.N. mandates and rules of engagement for peacekeeping missions, as well as for missions to include the sort of development work necessary for conflict-affected societies, Dumas makes his affection for the country and its citizens clear. Also clear is his frustration at the courtship dance Haiti engages in with the international community every couple of decades, a dance that leaves both sides feeling frustrated and misunderstood. In a plea that such mutual incomprehension not continue, Dumas ends his book with a quote from the British politician Paddy Ashdown, the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, that ``we must remember that we cannot reconstruct states at the point of a bayonet, only with the support of the people. . . . Without that, we will fail.''

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

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