WASHINGTON – The U.S. Marines had been on Haiti's beaches for just a few days and the American secretary of state told the president he didn't know what to do.
The year was 1915 and the president was Woodrow Wilson. Now, almost 90 years later, America will try to buck the trend of two centuries of unsteady governance and the need for international intervention in Haiti.
"This is perhaps the last time to get it right. We have to make sure that past is not prologue and that Haiti's future is not like its past and is not written in blood," said Michael Heinl, author of "Written in Blood: A Story of the Haitian People."
After a 10-year absence, American troops have returned to Haiti (search) to try to restore order following the rebellion that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search). It is a heavy task that they have for the island nation, which has suffered under dictatorship, political anarchy and misrule for much of its history.
Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and worldwide it is the third most dependent nation on foreign food sources.
"This situation in Haiti is, as it has been for some time, extremely challenging. The needs of the Haitian people for democracy, jobs, education, healthcare and for such basics as food and clean water are as great as they have ever been," said Rep. Cass Ballenger (search), R-N.C., chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on the Western hemisphere.
Washington has long had to deal with Haiti's problems. From 1843 to 1915, American ships were dispatched to Haiti's waters 28 times. From 1915 to 1934, the United States effectively ran the country, a period many observers call the best time in Haitian history. Just 10 years ago, 23,000 mostly American troops entered the country to restore order.
During America's 19-year occupation, "America rebuilt Haiti's infrastructure but didn't stay long enough to create durable political institutions," said Heinl.
The 1994 intervention was also too short, according to Heinl.
"We tried to do what the British call the 'cheap and cheerful' model of intervention and scuttle as quickly as we could. This time we need to stay longer," he said. To build Haiti into a stable country, Heinl added that America would have to stay there for at least 25 years.
Similarly, Arielle Jean-Baptiste, project assistant at the Haiti Democracy Project (search), said, "Nation-building has to be a long term commitment. It can't be two years. It has to be 10 years. Without that, Haiti will keep coming back in the news."
When American soldiers arrived in 1994, Haitians wanted them to stay for the long term, and some scrawled in graffiti, "America: Stay here for 50 years."
Upcoming Challenges for Haiti, U.S.
As he outlined the most urgent tasks ahead, Ernest Preeg, former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, called himself "a relative optimist."
Preeg cited three immediate challenges: first, stop the killing and disarm both sides. Second, distribute humanitarian assistance. Finally, have free and open elections.
The 1990 election in which Aristide came to power was widely considered fair by international observers, but the 2000 elections in which Aristide won a second term were judged to be fraudulent.
However, Preeg said in nine to 12 months, a free election "will occur because it occurred before in 1990. I'm quite hopeful that there will be a second successful election."
For any of these efforts to have a lasting impact, Haiti needs to build durable political institutions, said Lawrence Pezzullo, who served as a special envoy to Haiti under former President Bill Clinton.
"The most urgent task will be preparing the ground for elections and that will require the most urgent assistance, the most talented people from the international community and Haiti. The people who come into government should be very accountable, very tied to a constitutional process and without that old habits will return," Pezzullo said.
After requiring international forces to repeatedly bail them out, Haitians' pride is bruised. For Haitian civil society to be reconstructed, "It's absolutely vital that Haitians have ownership of this process," Heinl said. "We can provide all kinds of support, but at the end of the day if Haitians don't have the feeling of ownership, we'll be back in 25 or 30 years."
To underpin the construction of political institutions, jobs must be created and money circulated through a public works program. "If not, institution-building is not going to have the room to breathe," Heinl said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Haiti's manufacturing was expanding and its infrastructure improving.
However, Haiti has fallen behind competitors like Central America, the Dominican Republic and Africa, not only because of bad governance, but also because those countries and regions have benefited from trade agreements with the United States.
To avoid falling further behind, Haiti must negotiate its own free trade agreement (search) with the United States, Preeg said.
Despite Haiti's tortured history, the outlook is not all bad, as the nation does have some resources to marshal.
"I think there are enough human resources out there that if they're brought in there it might be a relatively effective government we have in the next year or so," Preeg said. He added that the 1 million Haitians in the United States can play a major role in helping to modernize the country.
With the attention of the United States and the international community focused on the country, the Haitian people have a valuable opportunity. "The Haitians need to take this chance to build a nation," Jean-Baptiste said.