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Haiti Redux

Barbara Ehrenreich


Countless readers have written to this columnist in the last week begging for some clue as to our mission in Haiti. "Isn't it unusual," many have asked, "for a military force to changes sides in the middle of an engagement?" Not at all, according to top-level Pentagon researchers. History offers numerous examples of mid-battle switches of allegiance, not all of them involving 6th century Visigoths or Croatian irregulars. Even the so-called "charge" of the Light Brigade was, according to leading revisionists, bedeviled by ambivalence and loud debating about whether to go with the Russians or the Turks even, alas, as their mounts achieved an unstoppable speed. So no one should look askance at the U.S. for appearing to combat Cedras, then Aristide, and digging in now against that sinister force that almost wiped us out in Somalia, namely the dread "mission creep."

"Does the U.S. have one Haitian policy or two, or perhaps some number in between?" is another question readers have raised. Here I must refer you to the delicate matter of "perception," which plays such a commanding role in our system of governance. Clinton, in a rare moment of lucidity and calm, looked at the Haitian junta and saw "rapists" and "thugs." But this has nothing to do with the fact that Jimmy Carter, arriving in Port au Prince, found Lt. General Cedras cuddling a bevy of street-dwelling orphans while his wife crocheted elegant shrouds for their poor departed parents--victims, like so many others, of an inexplicably "violent culture."

The underlying principle here, which has guided U.S. foreign policy for decades, is that of the attraction of like for like. A cursory glance reveals that our freelance negotiating team--Jimmy Carter (known to detractors as "Kim's toy" and "plaything of dictators"), Colin "Desert Storm" Powell, and Sam "Beef Up the Military Budget" Nunn--consisted entirely of light-skinned millionaires with a passion for affairs of state. Who, then, were they to pass the time with in Port au Prince? Surely not coconut vendors. Similarly, armies tend to favor other armies over shabbily dressed throngs of civilians sporting torture wounds. This is especially true when the armies in question share cherished memories of their alma mater in Fort Benning, Georgia, and of many earnest hours in Interrogation class, not to mention Anti-communism 101. "Could there be more to this than meets the eye?" some of the craftier readers want to know--"some intra-White House intrigue, perhaps?" Happily, there is no basis to the rumor that the invasion was engineered by Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, in order to distract the president while she wrestled Leon Panetta to the ground and gnawed on his ear lobe until he agreed to let her keep her post. The other possibility, that the whole thing was a scheme to get Warren Christopher's attention, cannot be discounted, though in this respect it has tragically failed.

"Are there vital American interests at stake?" some have inquired. To which I must say, At last, an intelligent question. Yes, of course, there are always vital American interests at stake: oil in the Gulf, those lovely coral earrings in the case of Grenada, and--though few in the outside world realize it--the U.S. is almost totally dependent on Haiti for its supply of baseballs. This season's so-called baseball strike has in fact been a voluntary effort to control consumption, but an alarming dependency remains. All of our baseballs are stitched together by Haitian women for wages of five to ten cents an hour, apparently out of sheer love for the game.

Imagine if we had to import our baseballs from, say, Belgium, where labor costs would drive up the price of each ball to $159 or more. Greedy fans would stampede in their efforts to catch fly balls. The sport would be ruined. Hence our Haitian mission is emerging at this very moment: to give the Haitian military a refresher course in clean, hi-tech methods of crowd control--i.e., labor suppression--before Aristide returns. So naturally there is some confusion about which side we are on: we like our baseballs cheap, but they shouldn't be actually dripping with blood.