Ten years ago, United States Marine Staff Sergeant Mark Hardin arrived in Haiti as part of a US force to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Earlier this week, after the US had forced Aristide to leave, Hardin was back.

“It looks like nothing’s changed,” he said.

If Sergeant Hardin and his colleagues are not going to have to come back in another 10 years, something radical needs to change both in Haiti and its relations with the rest of the world. After 33 coups and 19 years of American occupation in 200 years, it is trapped in a cycle of political violence and poverty.

As fighting between the police and pro-Aristide loyalists, the chimeres, raged on Wednesday in the port of La Saline, there was genuine concern that the country could slide back into dictatorship. But on Wednesday night the rebel leader Guy Philippe said his forces would lay down their arms now that international security forces had arrived.

While the struggle to restore peace continues, the most urgent task is to feed the hungry. The first planeload of emergency food and medicine arrived on Wednesday, bringing 30 tons of medicine, water and sanitation equipment for 30 000 women and children, according to Unicef.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say [the humanitarian situation] has to be horrendous,” said Ken Boodhoo, an international relations expert at Florida International University.

Warehouses that stored emergency food for the UN world food programme before the rebels took over a swath of Haiti’s north were looted in the mayhem as ill-equipped police were driven out by armed gangs, demobilised soldiers and former militia leaders.

“There needs to be a proper role for weapons decommissioning,” says Annie Street of the Catholic Institute for International Relations. “Not just issuing a call for an amnesty but a thorough process for removing weapons from all sides.”

A more peaceful political climate is also a priority. James Dobbins, former special US envoy to Haiti said the American intervention from 1994 to 1996 lacked time and money to put Haiti on the right track. “You can’t fix a country as broken as Haiti in two years,” said Dobbins, now director of international security affairs for the US thinktank the Rand Corporation. “What is needed this time around is a very long-term commitment.”

The executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Jocelyn McCalla, believes investment in a neutral police force and judicial system is crucial to stability. “[The legal system] must be shielded from political interference, led by trained and competent individuals, free to initiate or pursue investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, and prosecute these matters to satisfactory conclusions no matter who is involved. Without such an investment, Haiti won’t have much of a democracy.”

But with the US so overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is unclear how much of a commitment it and the rest of the world will make to this small, impoverished country.

Charles Baker, a leading Haitian industrialist and member of a coalition that opposed Aristide, said investment will be vital in maintaining stability. “I don’t think the international community needs to stay for more than two or three years but they need to concentrate on building institutions,” Baker said.

“We will need a mass influx of funds and an honest government to make sure money goes where it’s supposed to.”

Most Haitians have no access to clean water and more than 80% live in abject poverty, surviving from subsistence farming on poor land. Life expectancy is 53 years. Many non-governmental organisations have also called for more fair trade, arguing that so-called trade liberalisation has crushed any nascent opportunities for export while undercutting local companies.

After tainted legislative elections in May 2000 and allegations of corruption, international donors — including the US and EU — suspended millions of dollars in aid and loans to the government, but humanitarian aid continued.

Haitians are hoping that this time, foreign intervention will signal a new start. “In 1994 the Americans didn’t really do anything and then they left. Look at Haiti now, we are poorer than ever,” said a law student, Joseph Peter, as he stared at US Marines posted at the National Palace. “We are glad they are here, but this time we hope they do something to really help the country.” – Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004