Four weeks after Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was pushed from office by armed rebels, signs are mixed on whether the country will find a path toward reconciliation and honest, constructive government or go back to the reign of terror of the early 1990s. In 1991, the Haitian Army, with some of the rebels in its ranks, deposed Aristide for the first time and began a slaughter of civilians that ended only when President Clinton sent in Marines three years later. Now the Marines are back, along with other international peacekeepers, but the country is far from stabilized.
In the vacuum of Aristide’s departure, the international community invited a council of prominent Haitians to choose an interim prime minister to form a government and rule until new elections can be held. That leader, Gerard Latortue, has assembled a team that includes some respected individuals with good credentials. However, it includes no supporters of Aristide, which could leave a large portion of the population, especially the urban poor, feeling unrepresented.
It is also worrisome that Latortue joined in a ceremony in Gonaives March 20 with some leaders of the armed anti-Aristide rebels who have appalling human rights records. Latortue infuriated human rights advocates by referring to the rebels as “freedom fighters.” Most of them have not, as they promised US officials, laid down their arms.
After Aristide’s return to power in 1994, he disbanded the army because of its ugly record of coups and massacres. Now Latortue has picked as interior minister a former general, Herard Abraham, who wants to reinstate the army.
In the meantime, rebels say they will guard the most recent shipment of food to Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap Haitien. Several charitable organizations lost their food supplies to looters in the collapse of authority brought on by the rebels and Aristide’s flight out of the country. Leaders of such organizations say conditions have improved somewhat in recent days, but many areas and important roads remain insecure.
One positive development is a pastoral letter written and circulated by Haiti’s nine Roman Catholic bishops that advocates reconciliation, not revenge. That will presumably also be the message of France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who plans to visit Haiti next week.
France, which once colonized Haiti, and the United States have the largest contingents in the international peacekeeping force. While Haiti has to be trusted at some point to chart its own destiny, representatives of the United States and France should not hesitate to warn Latortue about setting his country on a course that could put power once again in the hands of thugs and drug dealers.