Focus on Haiti's future

April 12, 2004

THE BUSH administration can spend time and money investigating former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for alleged drug trafficking.

Or it can concentrate its political capital on stabilizing the Caribbean country the ousted leader left in a shambles. The latter must be the White House's priority unless it wants to keep American soldiers in the country past their planned departure in June.

For months now, and with some reported success, the U.S. attorney's office in Miami has been looking into allegations that Mr. Aristide allowed drug traffickers to use the impoverished island nation as a transit stop and got paid handsomely for it.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's confirmation of the investigation during his one-day visit to Haiti last week sounded suspiciously like political payback for Mr. Aristide's repeated claims that he was the victim of a U.S.-led kidnapping Feb. 29.

The Haitian leader fled the country as rebel forces advanced on the capital of Port-au-Prince. Charging that he was forced to resign, Mr. Aristide has said he will sue the United States and France, which facilitated his safe exit.

Mr. Powell's trip to Haiti was meant to signal the administration's support of the interim government as it seeks to restore law and order, political stability and services to 8 million Haitians -- and Washington must stay that course.

The $55 million in U.S. aid pledged to Haiti will help interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue undertake the difficult tasks ahead -- preparing for new elections in 2005, rebuilding the police force and civic institutions and address ongoing human rights violations.

The sooner the island recovers from the winter months of fighting, looting and killing, the sooner Mr. Aristide's attempts to reassert his influence will fall by the wayside and he will become simply another deposed Haitian leader.

The future of Mr. Aristide, a popular former priest and the country's first democratically elected president, is uncertain. While on an extended visit to Jamaica, he would do well to concentrate on finding himself a place of refuge. South Africa initially refused his request for political asylum. After his ouster and a brief stay in the Central African Republic, he and his American-born wife journeyed to Jamaica to reunite with their daughters.

Although Caribbean leaders have raised questions about the circumstances of Mr. Aristide's exile, they must realize that he represents Haiti's past -- not its present and not its future.

The 15-nation Caribbean community must now focus its attention on fostering an atmosphere in Haiti where democracy flourishes and Haitians reunite under the flag of a free, just and democratic society.

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