Friday, January 22, 2010

US Faces Down Concerns It's 'Occupying' Haiti

alain joyandet
John Thys, AFP / Getty Images
Alain Joyandet, France's minister for cooperation, was whistled back by others in the government after suggesting the U.S. was out to occupy Haiti.
The first time U.S. Marines landed in Haiti, they stayed nearly 20 years.

It was 1915, and President Woodrow Wilson dispatched 330 Marines to "re-establish peace and order" after the Caribbean nation saw six presidents in four years either killed or forced into exile. The U.S. occupied Haiti until 1934. American troops returned in 1994 in an ultimately abortive attempt by then-President Bill Clinton to reinstall Haiti's exiled president to power.

Now the Marines are back for a very different mission.

Black Hawk helicopters whirred down onto the manicured lawn of Haiti's presidential palace Tuesday, delivering hundreds of U.S. troops who have transformed the National Palace into an earthquake aid depot in the center of Port-au-Prince. About 12,000 American troops are already on the ground or anchored offshore, organizing everything from aid drops to air traffic.

But for some skeptics of American power, the image of U.S. soldiers taking over the wrecked symbol of Haiti's sovereignty conjures less than favorable comparisons to other places where America has used its military might -- Iraq, Afghanistan and the like. France's international cooperation minister, Alain Joyandet, even accused Washington of trying to "occupy" Haiti and urged the United Nations to investigate.

His comments were not without irony. Haiti's particular agony is grounded at least in part in France's own brutal colonization and exploitation of its inhabitants for more than a century, ending in a bloody slave revolt in 1804.

Joyandet complained after a French aid flight carrying a field hospital was turned back from Port-au-Prince's overtaxed airport last week. The angry minister reportedly got into a physical confrontation with the U.S. official in charge of air traffic control. The French plane landed safely the next day.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened quickly, praising Washington's "exceptional mobilization" and "essential role ... on the ground" in Haiti. But the whole row was embarrassing, especially with so many Haitians still suffering.

Other prominent U.S. critics have voiced similar, if predictable, concerns. In his weekly television address, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez accused the U.S. of "occupying Haiti in an undercover manner."

In another incident that illustrates the chaos at Haiti's airport, American forces initially blocked French and Canadian citizens from boarding evacuation flights over the weekend. Their governments complained, and the cordon was lifted.

On the Haitian side, government officials pleaded for U.S. help and throngs of survivors cheered when American helicopters ferried hundreds of soldiers onto the palace grounds. People who have gone eight days without food or water have far more pressing concerns than politics.

"We are happy they are coming, because we have so many problems," hairdresser Fede Felissaint told a Scottish newspaper reporter in Port-au-Prince. He said he did not mind that U.S. troops were taking up positions at the palace.

"If they want, they can stay longer than in 1915," Felissaint said, smiling.

ut American officials say that's not their intention. "There have been some reports and news stories out there that the U.S. is invading Haiti," U.S. Army Col. Gregory Kane told reporters in Port-au-Prince. "We're not invading Haiti. That's ludicrous. This is humanitarian relief."

Officials estimate that the death toll from last week's devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake could reach 200,000. The Red Cross says about 3 million Haitians -- a third of the country's population -- are still in need.

Those trying to help in Haiti are working in tough conditions, and tempers are bound to flare. But there's little reason to question U.S. motives in Haiti. President Obama dispatched Navy ships and U.S. troops because they can mobilize more quickly than private aid groups in times of disaster.

On a weekend visit to Haiti, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. has no intention of taking power from Haitian officials. "We are working to back them up, but not to supplant them," she said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who reviewed rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Haiti, said Americans were chiefly involved in distributing relief supplies and wouldn't take on a robust policing role. "Anywhere we deploy our troops, they have the authority and the right to defend themselves," Gates told reporters traveling with him on an official visit to India. But he said troops could also defend others "if they see something happen."

The U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper quoted unnamed U.S. soldiers in Port-au-Prince as saying they'd been told to be discreet about how they carry their M-4 assault rifles.

Still, with the U.N. struggling to find staffers buried in the ruins of its collapsed headquarters in Haiti, aid groups have given the U.S. almost unanimous support in leading aid efforts.

"America has both the geographical proximity and resources to lead this relief effort," said Caroline Saunders, director of Jubilee Action, a British charity that's been working in Haiti since 2008. "By using U.S. helicopters, aid is finally beginning to reach the devastated areas of Port-au-Prince, where thousands have been without access to food and water for over a week."

With most aid workers and Haitians lining up behind U.S. leadership, is Joyandet just a lone French official whose nerves got frazzled and misspoke? Or do his comments reveal something deeper about the way the world sees America's military power?

Would he have said the same thing if it had been another country -- say, Germany or Brazil -- organizing air traffic in Port-au-Prince?

Underlying the episode is a tangible sense of hurt pride that France -- Haiti's former colonial master -- is relegated to a secondary role there while U.S. officials take charge. France has long regarded Haiti as part of its own sphere of influence, and French is still the official language there.

Regardless, Joyandet's comments have stoked ire among Americans proud of what their military is doing in Haiti. "One has to wonder if Minister Alain Joyandet perceived the U.S. Army as an occupying force in France in 1944-1945 when it liberated his country," wrote Tim McDonald, a columnist for Indiana's News and Tribune newspapers.

In the end, Sarkozy and other French officials seem to have silenced Joyandet for now, and American officials are defending the role their troops are playing in Haiti. They all seem determined to disprove French philosopher Voltaire's observation that "opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours."

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