February 25, 2004

Haiti is a time bomb with an ever-shortening fuse. With unemployment at perhaps 70%, the highest rate of HIV infection in the Caribbean and 8 million people crammed into an environmentally ruined space the size of Maryland, Haiti was ripe for the criminality and political instability that are now overtaking it.

If Haiti doesn’t stabilize, nothing will stop a new exodus of desperate people risking an ocean journey to U.S. shores in little more than large, leaky rowboats. The still-small groups of anti-government thugs, armed by the drug cartels, could grow into real armies capable of creating a rogue state a few hundred miles off Florida’s east coast.

The United States, France (once Haiti’s colonizer), Canada, the Organization of American States and the group of Caribbean governments known as Caricom are struggling to broker a deal. Their current power-sharing proposal would leave Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president until elections in 2005 but curb his power with an opposition prime minister and cabinet.

Aristide has accepted the idea, knowing that he has no choice. His political opposition, however, under pressure from the armed militants to refuse, rejected the proposal Tuesday.

The opposition should have taken the deal because, as Dan Erickson of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue said, “Aristide is a problem with an expiration date, February 2006.” Haiti will need that time to prepare for credible elections under the auspices of the OAS and United Nations.

The deal was clumsy and perhaps unworkable in the long run, but without it there is no immediate path forward. None of the participants in the talks is ready to unilaterally send in troops. They need some form of agreement to even ask the U.N. Security Council to send peacekeeping forces. The armed bands, both pro- and anti-Aristide, that terrorize the population are still small enough to be dealt with quickly by a well-trained force. But that situation won’t last.

After its ultimately failed 1994 military intervention in Haiti, the United States has little appetite for a solo reprise. However, U.S. forces would have to be part of any peacekeeping effort.

The United States has a long and troubled history in Haiti, beginning with the U.S. refusal, under pressure from its fearful slave states, to recognize the Haitian republic declared in 1804 by rebellious former slaves.

In the 20th century, a U.S. military and civil occupation was followed, after a brief democratic interlude, by the brutal U.S.-supported rule of Francois Duvalier and his son. Aristide himself was returned to power in 1994 under the auspices of Washington, only to run an increasingly corrupt government.

If Haiti is ever to offer its citizens an economic and civic future, only a sustained effort by its hemispheric neighbors will make space for more honest politics to grow.