Originally: Unhappy Anniversary


Friday, January 9, 2004; Page A16


TWO HUNDRED years ago this month, Haiti proclaimed itself independent, ending a French colonial regime based on slavery and founding the world’s first black republic. Yet the celebration of this noble event last week was sadly reflective of the country’s ongoing misery. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a democratically elected leader who has increasingly resorted to brutality and corruption, found himself virtually isolated at his elaborately planned ceremonies, with only the leaders of South Africa and the Bahamas in attendance. In the streets of Port-au-Prince, his police opened fire on opposition marches, prompting violent clashes that went on for hours. The street fighting has resumed this week as the opposition mounts new demonstrations and a general strike in a continuing attempt to force Mr. Aristide to resign. Schools, courts and the national parliament have ceased to function.


Haiti has endured its latest political crisis for nearly four years. It has long been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with the highest rates of illiteracy and HIV. Now 80 percent of the workforce is unemployed, malnutrition affects two-thirds of the population and the only growth industry is drug trafficking. Two centuries after its founding and nine years after the United States dispatched troops in an effort to establish democracy, it is dangerously close to achieving the status of a “failed state,” like pre-2001 Afghanistan.

Blame for this state of affairs is widely shared. Mr. Aristide, once a populist priest, has cruelly disappointed Haitians who believed he would work to consolidate democracy and develop the country after the U.S. intervention returned him to power. Though he himself was fairly reelected, Mr. Aristide first tolerated the fraudulent manipulation of parliamentary elections, then violence by gangs of his supporters against journalists, human rights activists and others who have opposed him. He has repeatedly promised international mediators that he would compromise with opposition parties and carry out reforms — and repeatedly failed to deliver. The opposition, based in part on the country’s traditional oligarchy but now including people from all classes, has aimed at ousting Mr. Aristide rather than at a democratic solution; it too has condoned violence.


The United States spent more than $1.5 billion on nation-building in Haiti during the 1990s but now has all but abandoned the country. Aid to Mr. Aristide’s government has been blocked under the Bush administration, though some money has been funneled through international aid groups. Opinion about Haiti in Washington tends to be unhelpfully polarized between diehard haters of Mr. Aristide and champions who would ignore his failings. With vigorous diplomacy — something the Bush administration has yet to try — Haiti‘s contending sides might yet be induced to accept a compromise. The alternative is to wait until the turmoil in a country 600 miles from Florida becomes too great to ignore — as one day, it will.The alternative is to wait until the turmoil in a country 600 miles from Florida becomes too great to ignore — as one day, it will.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company