Deja vu in Haiti

March 01, 2004

HAITIANS COULDN'T escape their past, and, in the end, neither could President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Haiti's first democratically-elected president was forced to flee his country yesterday like despots before him. Since the island nation's liberation from France 200 years ago, rebellions and coup d'etats have changed the political landscape, and not always for the better.

Rebel insurgents whose armed followers battled their way to the capital and a coalition of opposition groups that demanded Mr. Aristide's resignation can claim victory now. But who will claim the mantle of power in Haiti?

Only a stable transitional government can restore order to the country, which has been wracked by violence and looting in the drive to oust Mr. Aristide from power. Humanitarian needs will be great and the threat of reprisals is real in Haitian political culture. An international peacekeeping force is urgently needed to prevent Haiti from devolving into chaos -- and yesterday's decision by the Bush administration to send in Marines was a welcome one.

The White House, which worked over the weekend to ensure Mr. Aristide's safe exit, rightly refused to send American troops into Haiti to help Mr. Aristide remain in power.

But his resignation doesn't resolve the security situation -- the rebels who swept through the northern sector of Haiti and pro-Aristide gangs in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince haven't laid down their weapons. They will have to be disarmed, and there is no Haitian organization that can do that.

There is no army in Haiti and through the weeks of violence, the national police force has shown that it is neither equipped nor manned to maintain order.

Today, there is no obvious candidate to replace Mr. Aristide. The chief of Haiti's Supreme Court has been sworn in as an interim president, but Haitians will have to determine who they want to lead them. That will take time, however, and the country and its 8 million citizens have to regain some semblance of normal life first. Once security is assured, aid organizations will be able to resume their work in the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere.

A confluence of forces led to Mr. Aristide's ouster, including the president's ineffectual leadership, government corruption and Haitians' growing disgust with the poor state of their lives.

The international community's discomfort with Mr. Aristide played a role in his demise; it is incumbent upon the United States, Haiti's neighbors and European friends to help shore up a new government. Opposition leaders who refused to negotiate with Mr. Aristide also bear responsibility for the rupture of the democratic process. They will have their chance now to show whether their true allegiance lies with a democratic Haiti or a vestige of its painful past.

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