January 23, 2004

At least 45 people have died in Haiti in violent protests over the last four months. Thousands of angry demonstrators have taken to Port-au-Prince’s streets to call for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; equal numbers have come out to support him. Prompting such street theater isn’t hard, as Haitians have plenty of grievances to air. And both the government and the opposition know all too well how to manipulate their nation’s needy, humble people.

U.S. officials have raised concerns about the growing violence with both the Aristide administration and the main opposition groups. But more must be done to stop the destabilizing street action and to prevent an unwelcome exodus of desperate Haitians to U.S. shores. The Bush administration should emphatically state that the removal of Aristide, Haiti’s democratically elected president, by violence or protest is simply unacceptable. For the sake of the region, the U.S. should exercise its considerable sway in Haiti to avert the kind of mob rule that has occurred recently in Bolivia. The Organization of American States and Caribbean leaders have offered sound suggestions to ease the Haitian crisis, chiefly by assuring the opposition that elections will occur – soon, on schedule and in a free, fair way. In chaotic Haiti, the simple act of creating a credible elections commission would be a boon, even if opponents understand that Aristide’s term does not end for two more years.

U.S. officials have not helped the situation in Haiti with their mixed signals about its controversial leader, particularly their sharp criticisms of him. This must end.

The administration must make it clear to Aristide’s opposition that, while many of them may have ties to influential conservative groups in the U.S., Washington will tolerate only a democratic opposition to a freely elected government. Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184, the main opposition blocs, want a transitional government in which Aristide would share power with a prime minister from the opposition. But these blocs should give up the notion because they lack the votes to make it happen in a democratic fashion.

In the 1990s, the U.S. invested huge sums and even its own military forces to try to plant the seeds of democracy in Haiti – with little success so far. Haiti remains poor, corrupt, dangerous and difficult for all too many of its people – this because of, or in spite of, Aristide and democracy. But no one would opt for the bloodshed, pillage and tyranny of its past, so the difficult choice for Haiti must be not mob rule but even more democracy.