The demands of the people for democracy in Tunisia that subsequently swept through Egypt and are now engulfing Bahrain, Iran, Libya and Yemen have consumed U.S. foreign policy attention in recent days. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has responded differently to events in each country depending on geopolitical factors. Thus, the administration’s harshest words have been reserved for Iran, while State Department officials have walked a semantic tightrope in Egypt and Bahrain in a desperate effort to preserve those longstanding and strategically important alliances.
Still, at least part of the message emanating from Washington has been generally consistent: The monarchs, dictators and autocrats in the Middle East must respond to the will of the people and institute democratic reforms or risk the consequences.
While street protests and their aftermath in Egypt and elsewhere have dominated the headlines, events unfolding in Haiti offer a very different view of U.S. policy on democracy in other nations. On Feb. 7, the Haitian government issued a diplomatic passport to former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, whom the U.S. helped oust from power and force into exile in 2004. At a news conference two days after the passport was issued, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley stated that Aristide’s return to Haiti might prove “an unfortunate distraction” that the U.S. would “hate to see” prior to the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for March 20.
In sharp contrast, the U.S. offered only a tepid response when former dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose brutal regime orchestrated the deaths and disappearances of more than 50,000 people, returned to Haiti in January. Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to meddle in Haiti’s internal affairs, forcing the government to withdraw its presidential candidate, Jude Celestin, and replace him with pro-military pop singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, who finished behind Celestin in a disputed first round vote.
Human Rights advocates have also been focused on the Middle East of late, documenting human rights abuses when possible and demanding that governments facing popular dissent do not resort to oppression as a means to quell the protests. Such vigilance is critical, especially as the U.S. contorts its pronouncements – and, no doubt, its actions behind the scenes – to protect its interests in the region.
As important as the outcomes in the Middle East will be, the human rights community must closely monitor U.S. intervention in Haiti’s democratic process and hold the U.S. accountable for continued selectivity in its commitment to democratic principles around the world. The people of Haiti, who have suffered the consequences of U.S. interference in their country for decades, deserve no less.