Haiti: Opposition - and US - Must Step Up to Bat

Article excerpt

Just as dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier defied rumors and the reality that he could no longer govern, right up to the moment he abruptly fled this Caribbean nation in 1986, Haitian President Jean- Bertrand Aristide said he'd see his five-year term through to February 2006. But by Sunday morning the rumors that had ricocheted like looter's bullets through the capital last week were confirmed: Haitians woke up to hear that their president was gone.

While the head of Haiti's supreme court said he was taking charge Sunday, and the US said a multinational peacekeeping force was on its way, it was unclear who really was in charge. Looting and chaos erupted on the city streets.

In Petionville, the mountain town above the capital, one man with a pistol offered a hint of the rationality that, in the end, has to be grasped here. As crowd of teenagers looted the police station, taking motorcycles and teleivions and releasing prisoners, the man shot in the air to get their attention. He told them they must stop because when a police force is reinstated, they'd need an intact police station to do their job. It was a sad reminder and a good example of what has to happen: the forces that forced Aristide out must work together to salvage what's left.

Mr. Aristide's exit came on the heels of a stern US message late Saturday that it was time for him to go - a plan apparently brokered by Secretary of State Colin Powell, with the help of the UN and France.

This government rupture is the 33rd in Haiti's 200-plus-year history, and the second time for Aristide, who was forced out in a military coup just seven months after taking office in 1991 as the nation's first democratically elected leader. He returned only with the support of more than 20,000 US troops in October 1994. After he finished his first term, he allowed a handpicked successor to hold his place until he was eligible to run again in 2000.

Aristide's popularity was already slipping by his second term, and the president was more focused on maintaining power than governing. The very steps he took to consolidate his power helped to him in; dismantling the military, arming gangs to muscle down any opposition, and allowing incompetent and corrupt officials to head state institutions.

But there's more than enough blame to spread around. The US was more interested in making sure that Haiti's internal problems didn't become their domestic nightmare of boat people landing on Florida shores. …