Fair-weather friends

October 10, 2004

THERE WAS A TIME when democratically challenged and perennially troubled Haiti appeared to be on the precipice of change that would finally rid the island of a crippling political crisis and get it back on track in its slow march toward democracy.

It was 1994, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, was restored to power largely due to the efforts of a group of nations led by the United States calling themselves the "Friends of Haiti."

What a difference a decade makes.

Mr. Aristide now lives in exile in South Africa, gone the way of several dictators before him. The interim government is overwhelmed by self-interested political players, rival gangs, former soldiers and paramilitary thugs, vying for power on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Deadly riots are spreading throughout the capital, and Iraqi-style beheadings of Haitian police and others are the norm. The violence, dubbed "Operation Baghdad" by its perpetrators, is part of a fledging campaign that the Haitian and American governments blame on Aristide supporters set on intimidating the interim government and scaring off international peacekeepers. Those claiming responsibility for the political decapitations say foreigners will be targeted next.

And the so-called Friends of Haiti? The United States, France, Venezuela and Canada are no longer coordinating efforts on behalf of Haiti, leaving the mess to the United Nations instead. France and the United States, which pushed aggressively for Mr. Aristide's removal from power in February and vowed to help shore up civic and legal institutions, pulled their troops out in June.

The Bush administration is clearly not interested in risking American troops there in an election year. France, Haiti's former colonial ruler, is sensitive about being there in the year that Haiti marks its 200th anniversary of liberation. Other nations have fallen short on their promises as well. An international peacekeeping force of 8,000 that was pledged by the United Nations is still 5,000 short. Venezuela has its own problems and is barely on speaking terms with the United States.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reiterated U.S. support for Haiti last week when he visited Brazil, which is leading the peacekeeping force in Haiti. But Haiti needs more than words of support; it needs a sustained U.S. commitment.

Haiti is once again on a precipice, this time on the edge of a dangerous cliff. The nation is still reeling from a tropical storm that took 3,000 lives and left more than 200,000 people homeless in the devastated northern region. The reverberations are sure to be widespread as desperate residents migrate to the overcrowded capital, or take to the high seas destined for Florida. The rapidly eroding situation is enough to make one wonder: Where are Haiti' s friends when it needs them most?

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