Originally: In My Opinion

On the eve of Haiti’s bicentennial, Michele Montas was sitting in a diner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan sipping tea and pondering the future of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The widow of slain Haitian journalist Jean Dominique, Montas has been living in the United States since an assassination attempt a year ago. The Christmas day ambush in front of her home in the hills above Port-au-Prince left one of her body guards dead.

‘I did an interview recently and was asked if I thought President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide was a dictator, and I said, `No.’ And after the interview came out, some people in the opposition were angry with me,” she said. “But to say Aristide is a dictator is to say he has control over what is happening in Haiti. He doesn’t have the tools to be a dictator. Chaos rules Haiti. And that scares me very much.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for creating that chaos, starting with the United States, which may have restored Aristide to power, but quickly turned its back on the fledgling democracy. Hardliners in the State Department, the CIA, the NSC and in Congress — who never liked the little-lefty-priest-turned-president — were eager to see him fail. As a result, U.S. policy toward Haiti has been rife with mistakes, including denying Haiti the support it desperately needed to build a competent police force to replace the country’s disbanded military.

Opposition groups within Haiti, who resent Aristide’s long-standing popularity, settled on the role of obstructionist. Their ultimate goal is to force Aristide from power before his term is up in 2006. It is an effort to achieve through violence and turmoil what they were unable to win honestly in elections.

And finally, Aristide himself deserves much of the blame. Segments of his government have been incompetent and corrupt. There is genuine fear among those who are critical of the government that they will be attacked or killed by gangs who support Aristide, gangs the president is either unable or unwilling to reign in.

Recent incidents of violence at the university in Port-au-Prince — long considered a sanctuary — left many Haitians stunned and angry at Aristide, especially among Haiti’s beleaguered middle class.

”That is the biggest change,” Montas explained. “More and more of the middle class is now abandoning Aristide. The last few years have killed hope for them; the hope that we were going to change things. So much was possible a few years ago, but now that hope is broken, and they don’t see how things can change as long as Aristide is in power. It is frightening to see how much that hope has been systematically killed.”

Montas worries when she hears her fellow countrymen declare life in Haiti can’t get any worse if Aristide is forced out. ”Of course they can get worse,” she said. “There can be something worse than Aristide.”

”Who we haven’t heard from is the peasantry, which has always been very loyal to Aristide,” Montas said.

If the poor in the country were to abandon Aristide, then nothing would be able to keep Aristide in power. For now, though, their loyalty appears intact. They legitimately fear a return to the Duvalier-style dictatorship they lived under for so long and are leery of the motives of opposition leaders, such as Andy Apaid.

Haiti may well be on the verge of a civil war, but the best course for Haiti would be for all sides to work toward fair elections.

If that means independent observers and possibly even an international peacekeeping force to get the polls opened and the votes counted, then so be it.

Aristide’s resignation, however, should not be an option. As Aristide told The Herald during Thursday’s bicentennial, “It cannot be. We had 32 coup d’etats in our country and we don’t want anymore.”

Haiti’s bicentennial was an important milestone. But the transition of power through fair and peaceful elections is an even greater landmark.

It is the sign of a true democracy.