Anarchy in the wings

December 12, 2004

TO SAY THAT Haiti is on the brink of disaster would be a major understatement, 10 months after it became a rudderless nation. The island is riding a wave of catastrophe heading straight for calamity.

Heavily armed gangs terrorize the streets of the teeming capital, Port-au-Prince, while opposing, equally fortified militias run the countryside. Interim leaders, who billed themselves as experienced technocrats who could hit the ground running, are still trying to figure out what political ground to stand on. Having dismissed the demands of supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, they underestimated the resolve of those violently agitating for his return. Having aligned themselves with rebel ex-soldiers who forced Mr. Aristide's departure, government leaders now find they cannot renegotiate deals made with the devil.

The pro-Aristide gangsters have little to lose. Military thugs, who have taken up residence at police stations in provinces around the country after chasing the real police officers away, want to run the country.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue stands helplessly on the sidelines. He has appointed five different commissions to study military/civilian issues, a well-intentioned but ineffectual decision that typifies his mindset as a former U.N. bureaucrat. He should keep asking the United States for help disarming a nation awash in weaponry.

With a disarmament program in place, Mr. Latortue could appeal to police officers to return to abandoned posts. In the meantime, his government should meet with feuding parties and hammer out a political solution built on compromise -- something increasingly rare in Haiti -- to make way for free elections in November 2005.

The United States and the United Nations should step up, too. While the United Nations has accelerated deployment of peacekeepers, it still has not delivered the full 6,700. Some 1,622 desperately needed foreign police officers were promised to train new Haitian recruits, but only 1,250 have arrived. The United States pulled out its troops inJune and has just four military personnel in Haiti serving in advisory roles.

The World Bank should cut through bureaucratic red tape and disperse some of the $1.4 billion in aid pledged in July during an international donors' conference in Washington. The funds could get development programs under way that would provide jobs and a sense of stability.

Still, money alone won't do the job. The United States should be leading efforts to restore democracy in a country with which it shares important historical and geographic ties. Violent obstructionists tend to back down in the face of U.S. might, and nations on the fence tend to follow America's lead.

The United Nations and the Haitian government recently issued a report detailing the country's "disturbing downward trends."

If American and international policy-makers are weary of hearing those warnings, they would be wise to consider the cost of silence: increasing civil strife, an exodus of refugees to U.S. shores, withdrawal of human rights and humanitarian organizations, widespread famine. This is no time for international compassion fatigue. What is needed is moral and political action.

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