Haiti stands at a crossroads, and the United States has a moral obligation and unique opportunity to assist the people of Haiti in continuing down the path of democracy. The choice is ours: Either we work to bring the international community together to help Haiti achieve greater democracy and stability, or we disregard 8.3 million Haitians.

Dictatorship brought them suffering before; without our attention now, it could happen again.

Political interests aside

As it stands, Haiti, the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, is faced with a constitutional crisis. The terms of most members of Parliament will expire in January. Unless a new parliament is elected by next year, Haiti will have no national legislature and will be unable to enact laws, approve loans or exercise oversight over government agencies.

Under a formula devised by the Organization of American States, accepted in writing by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, seven of the nine seats on the Electoral Council, charged with supervising the entire process, have been reserved for opposition parties and independent civil-society organizations. It is imperative that all groups put their political interests aside, for the betterment of the Haitian people, and take up their seats on the council.

This body is only one of the huge obstacles facing Haiti’s ability to hold elections in time to avert a crisis. The issue of security is an ardent concern. The government has invited international observers and police contingents from neighboring countries to enhance electoral security and guarantee fairness. We, along with the international community, must answer the call.

The United States can play a helpful and decisive role in ensuring that the right road is taken, that Haitian democracy is strengthened and that U.S. and hemispheric security are enhanced. We can do so by supporting Haiti in its commitment to hold free, fair and democratic elections for national parliamentary and local offices by providing funds for security and election assistance personnel.

Reject Duvalier’s return

Sadly, many Americans have a tendency to ignore Haiti. The international community must not ignore Haiti; this nation serves as a reminder of what can go wrong if we fail to support democracy.

Last April, The Wall Street Journal featured a photo of Jean-Claude ”Baby Doc” Duvalier, the Haitian dictator deposed in 1986, with an accompanying article describing his comeback strategy. While the return of the discredited former ”president-for-life” may seem farfetched, the possibility that the country will back-slide into dictatorship is all too real.

Haiti also was front-page news last October when, in the midst of the Florida gubernatorial election, some 200 Haitian would-be immigrants jumped off a freighter and waded ashore in Miami, evoking memories of the mass exodus of Haitian ”boat people” during the Duvalier years.

Democracy has never progressed easily in Haiti, but with an international commitment, success can be achieved. It’s obvious that the political process in Haiti has its imperfections, but what matters is that Haitians are willing to learn from their mistakes and improve the process as democracy evolves. The government, therefore, has committed itself to holding free and fair elections in the coming months, and we must do whatever is within our power to help it achieve its goals.

An electoral solution

It is true that there are divisions in Haiti between those favoring and those trying to block elections. It is also true that the United States and its OAS partners agree that the Haitian opposition and the government share responsibility for achieving an electoral solution to the political crisis.

It is imperative that we come together for the good of the people of Haiti. We should work in partnership for successful elections and encourage all the parties to join the process.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., are co-chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus Haiti Task Force.