Rebels in Haiti were going house to house yesterday,
arresting supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
and looting their possessions. The capital, Port-au-Prince,
remained in government hands, but the nation’s
second-largest city, Cap Haitien, was held by the
insurgents. The situation is clearly becoming dire. The
United States needs to take the lead in protecting the
Haitian people from the growing anarchy around them. There
is much that Washington could do.
Only the slimmest hope remains for salvaging an
international mediation effort that began last weekend. If
it cannot be revived, there is a strong likelihood that the
country’s raging political crisis could ultimately be
resolved by brute force. Abrupt and violent changes of
government have been a regular feature of Haitian politics
over the years and are among the main reasons that Haiti
has never developed stable democratic institutions.
Mr. Aristide is no beacon of democratic principles, but he
was freely elected to a five-year term that is not
scheduled to run out until February 2006. It would have
been better if all sides had accepted the proposed
compromise that would allow him to stay in office while
sharing power with the opposition.
Most, but not all, of the responsibility for the failure to
reach an agreement lies with the leaders of Haiti’s
nonviolent political opposition. They argued that with
popular anger against Mr. Aristide running so high, they
could accept no compromise that did not cut short his
That public anger is largely Mr. Aristide’s fault, because
of a succession of betrayals of his original democratic
promises. By failing to end a long impasse over flawed
parliamentary elections, he has effectively shut down
Parliament and now rules by decree. He has politicized the
police and courts and uses special police brigades and
armed gangs of his supporters to terrorize civilians and
break up opposition demonstrations.
Yet the opposition’s unwillingness to stand up to the
former army leaders and opposition thugs now demanding Mr.
Aristide’s departure – and their failure to back a
compromise that would have been strongly supported by
Washington and other mediating countries – is a troubling
sign. It suggests that these politicians may not have the
toughness needed to make sure that any armed ouster of Mr.
Aristide does not lead to a rapid restoration of the same
discredited forces that ruled Haiti before he came to
power. These include thuggish leaders of the country’s
officially disbanded army and the murderous paramilitary
groups that supported military rule. Some of these elements
have already re-entered Haiti from the neighboring
There is still time for the political opposition to
reconsider its rejection of compromise before the armed
rebels impose their own new tyranny.
Whether or not the opposition comes to its senses, Haiti’s
people deserve protection. More than 70 lives have already
been lost. The United States should quickly offer to build
up the current force of 50 marines who arrived Monday to
protect the American Embassy and make it the core of a
multinational stabilization force that would also include
soldiers from France, Canada and Latin America. Haiti’s
army was dissolved in 1994, and a modest international
military force could go a long way. It should be in place
before armed rebel elements grab power for themselves.
Once a stabilization force is established, an American-led
international effort should be mounted to train
professional, politically independent police officers and
judges. It was the absence of such institutions that
allowed Mr. Aristide to create a new authoritarianism
behind a democratic shell. American police training
programs during the Clinton administration did not reach
far enough or last long enough to succeed. Washington
should also make it easier for Haiti to earn its way out of
poverty by eliminating the American rice subsidies that
have contributed to pricing poor Haitian rice farmers out
of the market.
Developing a durable democracy in this deeply impoverished
country, which has no history of strong, independent civic
institutions, will take plenty of time and effort. Failure
to begin that effort now will surely result in future
revolts, future dictators and future tides of desperate
refugees headed for American shores.