Rebel violence in Haiti

February 11, 2004

THE POLITICAL crisis in Haiti has entered a dangerous phase - armed rebels are sacking police stations and looting and burning their way through towns. At least 42 people have died since last Thursday. And though the Bush administration has condemned the violence, it contents itself with inaction and pat pronouncements that only "dialogue, negotiation and compromise" will solve the crisis.

For whom is that message intended? Embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has sought to negotiate with opposition leaders and has been rebuffed. The more important question is: Will the Bush administration broker a settlement between Mr. Aristide and those seeking to oust him, or would it prefer to see a change in Haiti's government? The latter may be Washington's preference, but if the United States is going to promote democracy around the world, democratically elected leaders should be removed only through democratic means.

For months, a gathering of opposition groups - elites, university students, civic leaders and clergy - have called for Mr. Aristide's resignation in emotional street protests. Thousands also have demonstrated on behalf of the president. But late last week, rebel forces, who claim to be aligned with the opposition groups in the capital, took over the city of Gonaives.

Haiti's national police force - it has no army - has been overwhelmed. Poorly trained and ill equipped, it numbers between 3,500 and 5,000 in a country of 8 million people. The Bush administration says it has made it "very, very clear" to Mr. Aristide that he needs to reach a political settlement. It should drive home the same point to opposition leaders who have refused to negotiate while Mr. Aristide remains in power.

Haiti's first democratically elected president, Mr. Aristide was ousted in a coup in 1991 and returned to power with the assistance of U.S. troops. Heralded as a champion of Haiti's poor, Mr. Aristide, by all measures, has failed to raise Haiti beyond its status as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. And he has certainly made mistakes - corruption has been an issue, as has been his failure to rein in his armed supporters.

If the United States wants a peaceful settlement and believes Mr. Aristide won't deliver it, the administration should intervene before it's too late. The United Nations already is warning of a food shortage because of the trouble; a humanitarian crisis could launch a flotilla of boats to Florida's coast - not the kind of problem an incumbent president would want to tackle in an election year.

The United States can continue to view the situation solely as Mr. Aristide's problem, but if the violence intensifies, Mr. Aristide's problem may no longer be his alone, or confined to Haiti. The United States should send an envoy to Port-au-Prince - before the boats set sail.

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