Leaving it to Aristide

February 19, 2004

THE UNITED STATES is leaving Haitian President Jean-Bertand Aristide to his own devices. With Haitian police reportedly abandoning their posts in some towns, former death squad leaders taking up arms against the government and pro-Aristide supporters resisting, it's doubtful that any political move by Mr. Aristide would halt the violence or calls for his resignation.

The situation in Haiti began with peaceful protests by opposition groups, determined to force Mr. Aristide from office. But it has escalated to a point where Mr. Aristide can't settle this on his own with his relatively small police force. For the Bush administration to insist on this course of action amounts to a fundamental misreading of the crisis or a callous indifference to it.

While we appreciate Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's candor on the White House's lack of "enthusiasm" for sending U.S. troops to Haiti, it doesn't absolve the administration from engaging in rigorous diplomacy.

France and Canada have offered to send in peacekeepers once the violence has subsided. The United States should seize on their good will and, in conjunction with the Organization of American States and the United Nations, propose a political compromise to break the impasse between Mr. Aristide and opposition leaders. That might persuade the embattled president to rein in his armed supporters who are serving as a second line of defense against a coup d'etat. But the volatility of the situation in Haiti and the presence of rogue former military leaders in the fighting necessitate swift action.

Mr. Aristide, the country's first democratically-elected leader and champion of the poor, is not blameless in this conflict. Discontent with his presidency has grown steadily since his return to office in 1994. Haiti remains as impoverished as it was when he was forced from office in 1991; he returned to Port-au-Prince three years later with the help of U.S. troops. A political solution brokered by the international community may not ensure the longevity of Mr. Aristide's rule, but it could prevent his violent overthrow. Opposition leaders also will have to accept compromises to keep the conflict from devolving into civil war.

The recent return to Haiti of Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a ruthless paramilitary leader whose group brutalized hundreds of Aristide supporters during the 1991-94 military dictatorship, signals the potential for a more intense, erratic phase. So far, more than 50 people have died since rebels seized the city of Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest, on Feb. 5. The United States has sent a team of aid officials to Haiti to assess the humanitarian needs, which have been described as dire. But Washington can't restrict its efforts only to addressing humanitarian issues. The political crisis in Haiti requires its leadership.

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