Published: February 13 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: February 13 2004 4:00
Haiti has been in deep crisis for some time but it is now sliding into a state of near-anarchy. Rather than serve as an occasion for national unity, the anniversary of the slave revolt that founded the republic 200 years ago has triggered more intense divisions between the hapless President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and an increasingly belligerent and ruthless opposition. The world faces the prospect of a humanitarian tragedy and the US a failed – and increasingly dangerous and unstable – state on its doorstep.

Haiti’s economy disintegrated some time ago. The government is incapable of running even the most basic services. Crime has been rampant for years. The Aids problem is the worst in the western hemisphere. Poverty levels are among the worst in the world.

The novelty is that its rickety institutions are beginning to collapse. Opposition politicians feel they can oust Mr Aristide within months. Equally, the president believes he has sufficient power and support to resist. Violence is escalating and at least 49 people have been killed in the past few days.

International mediation has failed to bring the warring parties together. The Organisation of American States, which successfully helped countries such as Guatemala and Paraguay maintain democracy, has pulled out its mission on safety grounds. Limited progress, made recently by the leaders of several small Caribbean states, appears to have fallen victim to the rising violence. Fearing an exodus of desperately poor refugees, the US has begun preparing reception centres at its Guantánamo military base in Cuba.

In spite of this depressing scenario, diplomatic efforts need to continue. A first step would be a renewed high level effort to preserve the vestiges of constitutional rule. Gangs should be disarmed. The police force reformed. New elections should be called.

In practice, though, such a stance – however much in line with OAS rules – may have little chance of success. There is clearly now a significant risk that Haiti will collapse and become ungovernable. International intervention has been tried and failed before, most recently in 1996. But a fresh exercise – preferably under the United Nations and for a much longer period than in the 1990s – may be the only way to restore a semblance of stability.

Inevitably, the US will need to play a central role. One priority in this context would be to free Haiti policy from the competing pull of lobby groups. Differences between the congressional black caucus that has supported Mr Aristide and the Republican lobbyists who have opposed him need to be ironed out and a clear policy forged in the national interest.

An unstable Haiti will be a source of desperately poor immigrants and could serve as a base for drug traffickers and potentially terrorists for years to come. The world – and in particular Haiti’s powerful northern neighbour – may choose to ignore these dangers but it will do so at its peril.