Haiti’s feckless government is on the verge of collapse. Run by presidential decree since parliament dissolved last month, it has been rocked by violent protests that have claimed more than 40 lives. Battered by more than two centuries of despotic, mostly corrupt, rule, most Haitians today are illiterate and poverty stricken. Potable water is scarce, electricity runs only a few hours a day; the economy depends on humanitarian aid. 

Protesters have taken to the streets to urge President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down. His plan for now is to hold out for assistance from the Caribbean Community and the United States and stay in power. Unless he makes good on promises to reform, he should not get help. When the United States restored Mr. Aristide to Haiti’s presidency in 1994, he immediately rejected the task of building public institutions. Instead, he chose to rule through street mobs called chimeres that attacked political opponents like the feared Tontons Macoutes of former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier.

Mr. Aristide’s “me-against-them” mentality betrayed the trust of both the Clinton administration that put him back in office and the numerous members of Congress who supported that decision. After a controversial election gave him a second term in 2000, Mr. Aristide politicized the new 6,000-man Haitian National Police by appointing party loyalists to key positions. A quarter of the force then quit, and thereafter, police seldom intervened when pro-Aristide mobs attacked opposition politicians and reporters.

In June 2001, Mr. Aristide announced a “zero tolerance” policy on crime, which many Haitians interpreted as an invitation to vigilante justice. That December, the pro-Aristide chimere called “Asleep in the Woods” took matters into its own hands and hacked to death radio journalist Brignol Lindor in the town of Petit-Goave. Lindor had done radio broadcasts critical of Mr. Aristide. Little more than a month ago, Mr. Aristide pardoned 42 violent criminals, commuted the sentences of 66 others and provided amnesty to an additional 90 accused whose cases were still under investigation. 

But even liberated criminals may not leap to Mr. Aristide’s defense. Former supporters such as the Cannibal Army of the city of Gonaives have turned against him because of unfulfilled promises and fears he may be shifting his loyalty to other thugs. University students and the business community, angry over lack of basic services and public security, also appear to have turned against the president. Even prominent members of his own Lavalas Party have begun walking out on him. 

Mr. Aristide met earlier this year with leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community and pledged to defuse the crisis by letting demonstrators protest freely, disarming partisan gangs, reforming the police and working with the opposition to appoint a new prime minister as a basis for fresh parliamentary elections. If Mr. Aristide were to keep his word on these promises and accept some supervision from donor countries in rebuilding Haiti’s public, political and economic institutions, it might be worth it to help him serve out his term — which ends in 2006 — in the name of getting Haiti’s shaky democracy back on track. But Mr. Aristide rarely keeps his commitments. 

In 2000, he sent President Clinton an eight-point promise to correct previous flawed parliamentary elections, respect human rights and form an administration including opposition parties. He also agreed to two resolutions from the Organization of American States to prosecute human-rights abusers and establish a climate of security. To date, he has made little progress. 

Clues to why are found in his 1990 book, “In the Parish of the Poor,” where he belittles Western democracy and elections and calls instead for perpetual struggle. At heart, Mr. Aristide, a former priest, does not believe in democracy.  Alternatives are few. Protests could become more violent, forcing Mr. Aristide to abdicate and seek asylum or meet the same fate as his opponents at the hands of violent mobs. He could ask other countries for help. A plea to Fidel Castro in Cuba or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could bring assistance even though Cuban doctors, teachers and secret police might not be welcomed by Haitian citizens. Or he could hold out for a change of administration in Washington and hope to get back on another fast track to U.S. largess.

But that is not likely either. Burned before, even once-enthusiastic fans in Congress won’t want to support him again. 
So, in Haiti’s 200th year as an independent republic, its future remains as cloudy as ever. President Aristide can keep his promises or step down. If it’s the latter, the United States and the Caribbean Community should be prepared to support establishment of the rule of law and development of democracy — this time from the grass roots up. 

Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.