U.S. shouldn’t abandon commitment to Haiti

Not long ago, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hailed as the savior of Haitian democracy. Many international observers – not to mention Haitians themselves – saw Aristide’s 1990 election as president of Haiti as the harbinger of a democratic and prosperous future. When a military coup promptly toppled the former Catholic priest, the United States spearheaded an international effort to restore him to power in 1994. By the end of the year, a U.N.-sanctioned U.S. force numbering nearly 23,000 oversaw the return of the democratically elected leader.

Things could hardly be different today. In a near-complete role reversal, Aristide faces a democratic opposition every bit as vocal as the one he rode to power. After several years out of office, Aristide regained the presidency in 2000 in an election plagued by allegations of fraud. Opposition leaders have long demanded Aristide to step down and allow new elections. The embattled president insists he will serve out his term through 2006. Street protests have grown increasingly violent, killing more than 50 and wounding nearly 100 since last September. The violence has prevented the next round of parliamentary elections, leaving Aristide to rule essentially by decree.

Aristide has come a long way since his days as a democratic opposition leader. The police forces and armed gangs he once condemned now regularly defend his regime. Corruption has worsened under his watch, bringing a virtual halt to foreign aid and development. The country remains the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with unemployment approaching 80 percent and annual per capita income dipping below $100 in many regions.

Having gone to great lengths to restore Aristide to power, U.S. foreign policy has largely forgotten him and Haiti. A careful intervention would make good on the commitment to Haitian democracy the United States pledged 10 years ago. Aristide has signaled willingness to compromise in recent days, two weeks ago promising to disarm government gangs and hold legislative elections within six months. The United States should take advantage of this opportunity.