Haiti's dangerous brew

January 30, 2004

IN HAITI, this bicentennial year is devolving into a year of political violence. Instead of celebrating their defeat of Napoleon's forces in 1804, Haitians by the thousands are demonstrating for and against their democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. If victory by a rebel band of slaves marked Haiti's liberation, violence by armed gangs has threatened the stability of the first free black republic.

Protesters opposed to Mr. Aristide are demanding he resign. The president intends to serve until his term expires in 2006. A potent mix of forces contributes to this political maelstrom, including U.S. displeasure with Mr. Aristide, the isolation of Haiti by international donors and a crushing poverty that keeps Haitians economically depressed and politically disillusioned.

The answer to Haiti's crisis, however, is not to force Mr. Aristide from office - Haiti's history is replete with assassinated and deposed leaders, revolts and coups d'etats, repressive and dictatorial regimes. Mr. Aristide himself was ousted in a military coup in 1991 and restored to power by American troops three years later. The answer is for the Organization of American States or some other neutral third party to broker fair and peaceful parliamentary elections; a strong legislature could serve as a check on Mr. Aristide's power.

Disenchantment with the government of Mr. Aristide, a former priest popular among Haiti's poorest, stems from the impoverished state of the country. Haiti's 10-year experience with democracy has not produced a reliable source of potable water, decent housing or foreign investment. Haitians suffer widely from AIDS, malnutrition, illiteracy and joblessness.

The situation in Haiti has been complicated by several factors. While opponents of Mr. Aristide clamor for change, they refuse to participate in elections and they dismiss Mr. Aristide's offer to bring in outside observers and international police monitors. For several years, until last summer, foreign loans to Haiti worth about $147 million had been delayed. The United States is Haiti's largest aid donor - $850 million since the fall of 1994 - but the money bypasses Mr. Aristide and flows to nongovernmental organizations.

As the political climate has deteriorated in the past month, the United States has contented itself with pronouncements to Mr. Aristide to "end violent oppression of peaceful demonstrations." When Mr. Aristide meets with Caribbean leaders today in Jamaica, they will want to hear that he plans to disarm those who are resorting to violence, while at the same time ensuring that peaceful demonstrations are not disrupted.

Mr. Aristide's insistence that Haiti's troubles derive from a "200-year-old plot" to disenfranchise blacks only inflames emotions; his reliance on a $21 billion reparation claim from France won't solve this crisis. The opposition, a collection of civic, professional and union groups with no clear leader, cannot continue to boycott elections. It should mobilize its supporters to exercise their power at the ballot box. That's the place to make their mark.

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