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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 14:52 GMT
Uncle Sam's backyard: A troubled history

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The role played by the United States in the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti shows that Uncle Sam still wants to keep things quiet in his backyard.

President Aristide (left) and President Clinton (right) in 1994
Clinton restored Aristide to power in 1994

The precise circumstances of Mr Aristide's leaving may be debated. He says that he was in effect forced from office, having been warned that thousands would die, including himself maybe, if he did not agree to go.

He told CNN that it was a "real coup d'etat...a modern way to have a modern kidnapping."

US diplomats say that he agreed to go and that when they went to his house early on Sunday morning to escort him to the airport, he was already packed.

They say that he wrote a letter of resignation before getting on a State Department chartered aircraft.

It might have been a bit of both. Mr Aristide needs some cover for his actions in fleeing. Washington needs to lay the responsibility on him.

US attitudes change

Certainly the Bush administration made little attempt to defend a man President Bill Clinton had championed when he ordered marines into Haiti 10 years ago. When, in this crisis, the opposition in Haiti refused to accept that Mr Aristide be part of a power-sharing arrangement, Washington pulled the plug.

The State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of Mr Aristide after he departed: "We all know the political history of Haiti is such that during President Aristide's time, he created a lot of division within the society - the polarisation grew, the violence grew.

President George Bush's foreign policy team came into office intent on toppling Mr Aristide

Jeffrey Sachs

"There were many armed gangs that were directly associated with him and his rule... So, one way or the other, a lot of the violence did come out of the fact, the way he ran the country."

'Brazen manipulation'

Critics say that something else was at work. The harshest critic in this instance is a leading world economist Jeffrey Sachs, now Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. He argued in an article in the Financial Times that the United States had overthrown a democratic leader:

"The crisis in Haiti is another case of brazen US manipulation of a small, impoverished country with the truth unexplored by journalists. President George Bush's foreign policy team came into office intent on toppling Mr Aristide, long reviled by powerful US conservatives such as former senator Jesse Helms who obsessively saw him as another Fidel Castro in the Caribbean.

"Such critics fulminated when President Bill Clinton restored Mr Aristide to power in 1994, and they succeeded in getting US troops withdrawn soon afterwards, well before the country could be stabilised. In terms of help to rebuild Haiti, the US Marines left behind about eight miles of paved roads and essentially nothing else.

"In the meantime, the so-called "opposition", a coterie of rich Haitians linked to the preceding Duvalier regime and former (and perhaps current) CIA operatives, worked Washington to lobby against Mr Aristide."

The Monroe Doctrine

That American attitudes can change so quickly can be partly explained by the uneasy relationship which the United States has always had with the Caribbean basin.

It really began with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 when President Monroe warned the European powers, especially Spain, which had just lost its colonies, to stay out of the Western hemisphere.
US attention to the region has fluctuated between obsession and disinterest
Robert Pastor

It has continued with invasions or interventions in Cuba, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama and Haiti itself.

US security needs

Robert Pastor, who was Director of Latin American Affairs in the presidency of Jimmy Carter and tried to develop better relations with the Caribbean region, has written that US security needs help set the pattern for the US approach:

"US attention to the region has fluctuated between obsession and disinterest. I have referred to this pattern as a "whirlpool," a whirling eddy, which occasionally sucks the United States into a vortex of crisis where it becomes preoccupied by small neighbours or their leaders.

"US presidents react to these crises with security, political, and economic programs that have their historical antecedents even if the policymakers of the time are not aware of them. Then, almost as suddenly, US interest and resources shift away from the region, and many Americans can hardly recall either their nemesis or the reason for their intervention."

Sometimes, the interventions are welcomed by the locals. Few people in the tiny spice island of Grenada, for example, were displeased to see the overthrow of the clique which had gained control there after they executed the original leader of the revolution Maurice Bishop.

But at other times, the reason for American action is not so obvious to outside observers.

Cemetery in San Salvador

I remember standing in a cemetery in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador in 1981. Ronald Reagan had just come to power and his Secretary of State Alexander Haig had declared that the front line in the Cold War was now Central America.

The Reagan administration had drawn a line from the Soviet Union to Cuba to Nicaragua [then under the Sandinistas] to the rebels of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front in El Salvador.

The bodies of three young men had been dumped in the cemetery. The backs of their heads had been blown off, probably by the big G3 rifles used by the Salvadoran military. Local people came to see if they could identify them. One woman approached with a bundle on her head, a handkerchief to her nose. She peered closely and walked away.

It was not easy to see these young men as casualties of the Cold War. They looked more like casualties of a civil war.

El Salvador in due course made peace with itself. It ceased to be a problem. And very little has been heard of it since.

The BBC's Ben Brown
"Working alongside the rebels is Haiti's beleaguered police force"

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