?NOW we’re partying. Then we’ll go back to work,? declared a democratic opposition leader as Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew off to the Central African Republic on February 29th at the start of his uncertain exile. The party did not last long: rebel action forced Haitians to face up to a future rosy with promises but little else.

When the Americans last intervened in Haiti, to put Mr Aristide back into the presidency in 1994, they had had the three years since his overthrow in which to construct a blueprint. In the event, the blueprint was more or less consigned, by events on the ground and by America’s early withdrawal, to the dustbin. This time, policy is having to be invented, on the run.

The intent, at least, is good. James Foley, America’s ambassador, promised Haitians that the international community would ?fill the void? and that, this time, outsiders would not ?walk away from Haiti before the job was completed.? He added, even more unconvincingly, that ?the whole world is united to help Haiti.?

It seems sadly unlikely, with the extra twist that the world is led by a government bogged down in Iraq, with a beady eye on November’s election, and divided over Haiti. As with Iraq, America’s Defence Department and State Department do not always agree. On March 2nd Defence officials said that the 1,500-2,000 marines in their 90-day stay in Haiti would of course try to restore order, but would not, they stressed, act as the new cop on the beat.

For a few hours after Mr Aristide’s departure, the transfer of power appeared to go smoothly under American and French tutelage. A new president, Boniface Alexandre, the respected head of the Supreme Court, was named. Mr Aristide’s fiercely loyal prime minister, Yvon Neptune, agreed to stay on to help the process along. A policy for national reconciliation, based on the ?action plan? brokered by the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and agreed to last month by Mr Aristide, involved the setting up of a commission which would select a council of notables?seven ?wise men??which, in its turn, would select a new prime minister.

But early on March 1st, before people could really take in what was happening, the National Resistance Front for the Liberation of Haiti, the rebel army occupying the north of the country and led by Guy Philippe (seen receiving tribute in the picture above), came rolling into the capital, Port-au-Prince. At the airport, a rebel caravan of pick-ups and SUVs swept past Colonel Dave Berger, the marine commander.

The colonel had been on the ground only a few hours, with his first contingent of 150 marines. As soon as they had secured the perimeter of the airport, he said, they would begin moving into the city ?to secure key government installations?. But, following the Defence Department line, he stressed that he had no instructions for dealing with the rebels. ?That’s a Haitian problem,? he said. ?We are not a police force.? Looting continued under the Americans’ eyes, as did the rebels’ progress.

For days before Mr Aristide’s departure, American officials had been saying privately that there was no way the capital would be allowed to fall into rebel hands. Indeed, for a crucial 48 hours, the rebels had heeded America’s appeal to stay put in Cap-Haïtien, allowing America and France time to put the squeeze on Mr Aristide. But, from the first rebel uprising on February 5th in Gonaïves, America had misread the determination and firepower of the rag-tag rebel army, headed by Mr Philippe, a one-time police chief.

Mr Aristide’s exit was cleverly, if cynically, finessed. Although some critics are alleging that he was kidnapped by the Americans, and thrown on a plane, his removal was more like slow death by strangulation. Despite the pressure from American hawks to dispatch him post haste, Colin Powell, the secretary of state was concerned to avoid direct American complicity in a coup. He also had to take into account the Caribbean leaders who were calling for swift international military intervention to protect Mr Aristide and Haiti’s democratic order.

American officials were reasonably confident that Mr Aristide could be outmanoevred. And, indeed, he was, in the end, the author of his own downfall. Last week, his dreaded enforcers, the street gangs of angry young men and boys known as chimères, began a campaign of terror in the streets of the capital. By the middle of the week, bodies of opposition activists were lying about, some killed by ?execution?. Opposition businesses and radio stations were targeted for attacks.

But Mr Aristide’s doom was sealed on February 27th when the chimères began intimidating repatriated boat people. If there was anything the Bush administration was not going to stand it was an interruption, especially in the months before the election, of its policy of sending home intercepted Haitian boat people.

That afternoon the American embassy demanded that the chimères be got off the streets. Mr Aristide appeared on television, telling his supporters to go home. Next morning all was still, seemingly providing damning proof that the chimères took their orders from Mr Aristide, and that he, in effect, was their commander.

At the weekend, Luis Moreno, the number two at the American embassy and a veteran Haiti hand, visited the president to tell him that the rebels were massing to attack the capital, and that America would not intervene to save him. If he valued his life, and those of his fellow citizens, it was time to go. In the early hours of February 29th Mr Aristide left his palace with Mr Moreno, handing him a short resignation letter, that declared his wish to avoid a bloodbath.

There has not been a bloodbath: fewer than 100 people have been killed since the start of the violence. But Mr Aristide’s summary departure fuelled rumours of foul play, with many Haitians remaining sceptical of the official version of events.

Bad public relations. But perhaps America’s bigger mistake was to allow Mr Aristide’s untrammelled rule to last as long as it did. This has left a country that is wretchedly poor, riddled with corruption and awash in drugs. A sign of how out of touch Mr Aristide, a former priest, had become with the poor is the $350,000 in rotting, unusable $100 bills that looters found in a secret chamber under his house.

Haiti has long been a drugs transhipment point for Colombian cocaine traffickers. By the mid-1990s, the drugs trade was out of control, capitalising on Haiti’s internal squabbles and the greed of the country’s police chiefs, especially those who, like Mr Philippe, served in the port city of Cap-Haïtien. But drugs also infected the ruling Lavalas Family party, corrupting it to the core. The suspension of international financial aid starved Mr Aristide’s government of cash, driving it ever further into the arms of the drug dealers.

As the international force builds its presence in Haiti to the proposed total of around 5,000, Mr Philippe’s days could be numbered. On March 3rd, the marines began to patrol in the capital, and Mr Neptune declared a state of emergency. Mr Philippe said he would disarm his men. American officials make no secret of their distaste for his past record; they say he has no role to play in a future government. Their preferred candidate for prime minister is retired-General Herard Abraham, one of Haiti’s few genuine military heroes, who has been living quietly in Miami. As commander of the armed forces, General Abraham helped end military rule in 1990, and played a major role in organising the country’s 1990 democratic elections, which Mr Aristide won by a landslide.

Mr Philippe denies harbouring political ambitions. But he is calling for the army, disbanded in 1994, to be reinstated and has proclaimed himself to be Haiti’s military chief. He claims that 90% of the (crumbling and corrupt) police force is behind him. The struggle for power in post-Aristide Haiti is just beginning.