The road ahead

April 30, 2006

Haitian voters went to the polls in droves last February determined to elect a new president and end the political stagnation and violence that have paralyzed their country. Last week, they continued that process and selected legislative representatives from a slate of 127 candidates and laid the groundwork to seat the first functioning parliament in nine years.

Although serious challenges lie ahead, the elections are a hopeful turn of events after two bloody and politically fractious years. The United States and the United Nations -- respectively, Haiti's largest donor and the lead organization giving assistance -- must continue providing the support that will help the Haitian people fully restore and strengthen their fragile democracy. The U.S. is already helping Haiti build its civic institutions and reform its judicial system. It should now also target assistance dollars to help reduce the country's 80 percent illiteracy rate, which is one of Haiti's biggest challenges and a serious impediment to any civic education campaign.

Reaching these goals will require a commitment of cooperation among President-elect Rene Preval, the parliament and the prime minister it eventually chooses. Although Mr. Preval's party did not win a majority of the seats in the parliament, he and lawmakers will have to overcome political differences to build a stable government and get their battered country back on its feet.

Attacking Haiti's crippling poverty must top their agenda. As long as most Haitians don't have jobs and can't feed their children, the country will continue to experience violent social and political upheavals. A stable government will attract foreign investors and ultimately create jobs.

When Mr. Preval visited Washington in March, President Bush personally congratulated him. But Mr. Preval needs tangible U.S. support to shore up his credibility at home. A visit to Haiti last week by a contingent of U.S. State Department representatives and other federal officials to assess the country's needs was an encouraging step.

Haiti's future ultimately lies with its people and leaders. The people have expressed their desires at the ballot box. Now it's up to Mr. Preval and the newly elected government to demonstrate that they are worthy of the faith voters placed in them.

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