THE RECENT military coup in Haiti sent deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide shuttling between Venezuela, Washington and New York seeking international assistance to restore his government.
The Bush administration wisely cut off Haiti's $85.5 million in economic and military aid. The Organization of American States (OAS), comprising 34 Latin American democracies, voted unanimously to sever all diplomatic ties to Port-au-Prince, impose a trade embargo on Haiti, and freeze all of the country's international financial assets.
But even if the military regime collapses or the OAS succeeds in negotiating his return, Aristide may not be welcomed back. Aristide's style of governing more closely resembled that of Fidel Castro than a freely elected president. There is mounting evidence that, in an effort to undermine his enemies, Aristide ignored constitutional and legal constraints on his authority.
Aristide repeatedly used threats of mob violence, class warfare, and vigilantism to intimidate his opponents, thereby feeding an already tense atmosphere of paranoia and violence. In fact, he often hinted broadly that his rivals would find burning tires affixed around their necks.
This common Haitian practice, known as "necklacing," originates South Africa, where the radical African National Congress (ANC) uses it against its enemies.
Moreover, before his ouster, Aristide organized a secretive 300-man private paramilitary unit to act as his personal vigilante force, and possibly even to serve as a counterpart to the Haitian military. Men who intend to govern democratically, by the rule of law, don't assemble private armies.
For its part, the OAS is contemplating sending a multinational peacekeeping force to Haiti. This may be the only alternative left for the country, which has suffered through six changes of government in the past five years, including several coups, countercoups and bloodshed. An OAS force may be the only way to stop the violence and restore a civilian government. While the United States should support such a force through diplomacy and technical assistance, it should leave the bulk of the responsibility for its deployment with other OAS members.
If strong action is not taken against Haiti's oversized and unruly 7,000-man military, it would send the wrong signal to other Latin American and Caribbean militaries. Every time a democratically elected government is threatened in the Americas, shock waves are sent that tend to destabilize the region, slowing the pace of democratic and free-market reform.
The latest coup in Haiti probably will end in failure, with a civilian government soon to be restored. This new government, however, need not be led by Aristide. Many groups in Haiti -- including the military, members of the National Assembly, the police, most business leaders, human rights groups, opposition parties and various church leaders -- have made it clear that they do not seek Aristide's return. The Haitian people, therefore, should be allowed to choose who will be president, either through political consensus or a national referendum.
Regardless of what happens to Aristide, democracy and military reform should be Washington's and the OAS's top priorities for Haiti. The coup leaders in Port-au-Prince must be forced to step aside, and the military must be replaced by a smaller civil defense force. Otherwise, more coups are likely. On the other hand, if swift action is taken to defeat this putsch, then political and economic freedom may indeed have a fighting chance. Such action also will help send a very clear signal that the day of the dictator is over in the Western Hemisphere.
Michael G. Wilson is a policy analyst for inter-American affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.