Thursday, February 16, 2006

On a number of occasions I have commented that the real test of the Bush administration's spoken commitment to support Democracy is what will happen when people democratically elect a government that they don't like.

I have also blogged quite a bit about the sharp turn to the left that is going on to our south, especially throughout Latin America.

And nowhere has the test of American commitment to Democratic priniciples, or lack thereof, been more stark than in Haiti.

Now, Haiti is not strictly speaking a Latin American country. It was a French colony, and almost all of the people there are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean. My father spent some time in Haiti when he was a young man, and told me quite a bit about it. The language is Creole, a mixture of French, African dialects and with more than a hint of Spanish and seventeenth and eighteenth century English. The religion is as distinct as the language. While there are a number of different churches there and probably more people are Catholic than any other religion, Haiti is also the traditional home of the Voodoo religion, and many, many Haitians are practitioners of Voodoo (including some who may also go to other churches.)

One distinction that Haiti has is that it is without a doubt the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The lush green tropical forests that covered the hills and mountains for centuries have disappeared, as virtually every inch of land that can be used to grow crops or house people is in use for those purposes. In times of famine, people have even dug down to find the roots from the trees which are only a memory anymore, and eaten the roots as food.

For decades, Haiti was ruled by a family of dictators, the Duvalier family. The Duvalier family was backed by the United States, and as long as they backed the US in the Cold War (meaning in particular not having any relations with Cuba, one of their near island neighbors), America supported them and turned a blind eye to the corruption and brutality of the Duvaliers, and their feared police force, the 'Ton Ton Makout.' Haiti was also a place where a number of American companies set up sweatshops, finding the labor costs there to be even lower than they were in other Caribbean or Latin American countries. The people though finally had had enough and overthrew the Duvalier regime. Later, they elected Jean Bertrande Aristide, a flambouyant leftist who promised to share what wealth there was (remember, this is Haiti) among the people. And he made good on many of his reforms, beginning the long and arduous task of raising the living standards of poor people in Haiti up to well-- something. Then, when some die-hards in the military who wanted the old dictatorship back staged a coup and put Aristide under house arrest, Bill Clinton intervened to restore the democratically elected President to power.

Enter the Bush administration. Whether they encouraged an uprising by a small but violent minority (many former backers of the Duvaliers) is subject to question, but they certainly did not do anything to discourage it, finally helping Aristide find a way out of the country and into exile two years ago. Aristide claims he was forcibly removed from the country by U.S. marines; Our government denies it, saying that he agreed to let us fly him to Africa.

And the thugs who took over the government thought to stay there. But they made one mistake. With Aristide gone, they called a free election.

Rene Preval, an ally of Aristide, has wide support among the poor and masses of people in Haiti. And it showed. The current regime tried to drag things out as far as possible, trying to prevent Preval from getting the 50% of the votes that would allow him to avoid a runoff. More and more evidence kept coming forward showing fraud, as the Provisional Electoral Council kept reporting Preval's total as 49.something %. Finally, after growing international criticism, they threw in the towel yesterday and announced Preval the winner.

Preval, who once before was elected President, will continue to push for support for those who need it most. He is much more low key and less charismatic than Aristide, but will probably get at least as many results.

But most importantly, he is the person that the people wanted. We will see if our administration accepts that decision.

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