The tragedy of the last decade in Haiti is that Jean-Bertrand Aristide squandered a historic opportunity to create a popular movement that might have begun to equalize life’s chances among Haitians. That the armed insurgents, former members of the disbanded and despised military, are now welcome as liberators not just by the traditional elite but by broad segments of the population is a symbol of Mr. Aristide’s utter failure.

The story, however, has to go beyond Mr. Aristide’s failures and persona. Haiti’s predicament is symptomatic of a deeper, structural and systemic problem. The country suffers from acute economic, moral and political crises. The three are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. The economic crisis reflects not only the incompetent venality of the Aristide government, but also the absence of a productive entrepreneurial class, and the failure of structural adjustment policies in an environment of squalor and poverty. In addition, the freezing of international assistance during the past four years aggravated both the disastrous legacy of the preceding Duvalier period and the catastrophic consequences of the embargo of the early 1990s. In short, the economy is on the verge of complete collapse.

The pervasive reality of acute material scarcity has in turn exacerbated the zero-sum game that has marked the island’s politics. In Haiti, where destitution is the norm and private avenues to wealth are rare, politics is an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of advancement for those not born into wealth. Controlling the state has turned into a fight to the death to monopolize the sinecures of power.

Thus, the tragedy of Haiti’s systemic foundation is that it literally eats the decency of perfectly honest men and women, transforming them into a rapacious species of office-holders who devour public resources for private gain. Rather than inviting moral redemption, the immense poverty plaguing the country has generated a generalized pattern of callous indifference and a thoroughly individualistic “sauve qui peut.” This environment is conducive to political prevarication and fragmentation. Political alliances are ever shifting; the enemy of today is the potential supporter of tomorrow. These harsh realities did not spare the Aristide regime, and it is likely that they will overwhelm the triumphant civil opposition.

Viscerally antagonistic to Mr. Aristide, the opposition rejected a power-sharing compromise that would have emasculated Mr. Aristide and given it real power. The gamble paid off: Both the Chirac and Bush administrations, which disliked Mr. Aristide profoundly, abandoned him. This should have come as no surprise. The Bush administration had an ultimately contradictory policy toward Mr. Aristide. On the one hand, while it was antagonistic to him and starved his regime of badly needed foreign assistance, it acknowledged his legitimacy as president of Haiti. On the other hand, it supported — financially and diplomatically — a civil opposition which never recognized him as president. Once chaos engulfed the country, Paris and Washington decided that Mr. Aristide was dispensable. Confronting a declining popularity, an armed insurrection, the unmitigated hostility of the civil opposition, and French and American demands for his resignation, Mr. Aristide had no choice but to depart into exile.

This departure, however, would not have happened had it not been for the armed insurgency, whose sources of financing and training remain opaque. Once again, the old Creole proverb, “Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe” (A constitution is made up of paper, but bayonets are made up of steel), defined Haitian politics.

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Haiti now faces great uncertainties. Paradoxically, the departure of Mr. Aristide may cause the first serious cracks in the unity of the civil opposition. Under the weight of tactical, ideological and personalistic differences, the opposition may soon fragment. Moreover, how will it react to the armed insurgents with whom it did not want to be associated? Will the old army reconstitute and become part of a new government? What economic plan, if any, has the opposition generated for rebuilding a devastated country? Is its vaunted “new social contract” a mere slogan or a real commitment to reduce the chasm dividing the haves and the have-nots? In fact, Haiti will fall again into the abyss if the new powers-that-be fail to address the appalling inequalities between the destitute majority and the affluent minority. It is this divide that nurtures the tensions of Haitian society.

There is a small window of opportunity for the next regime. Having been on the brink of a civil war, it may be that the Haitian political class will finally realize that it should accept the logic of democracy. Yet there is little to indicate that this will be so and that the old demons will not resurface. Given the constellation of internal and external forces, the best that can be hoped for is that the more progressive sectors of civil society will come to dominate the post-Aristide order and push forward a modicum of social reform. On the other hand, there is the strong possibility that power will return to the most reactionary elements of Haitian society.

What is clear, however, is that without a sustained long-term commitment from the international community, the country has little chance to extricate itself from its current predicament. Past experience bodes poorly for such a commitment. The international community, and the U.S. in particular, have always tended to intervene to impose order and then exited as quickly as possible until the next crisis. Moreover, faced with the vicissitudes of Iraq and the realities of a presidential election, the Bush administration has neither the will nor the desire to engage in another attempt at nation-building.

From the safe and affluent shores of America it is easy to pass moral judgment and to engage in ruthless criticisms; but until Haitians themselves confront the stark realities of their situation, they will continue to dabble with catastrophe and live in baleful times.

Mr. Fatton, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy” (Lynn Rienner, 2002).

Updated March 3, 2004