THE most recent unrest in Haiti, resulting in a number of fatalities, underscores the desperate needs of that nation, the Western Hemisphere's poorest. The economy must be restarted and trade built up. Literacy programs must be greatly expanded: More than 80 percent of Haitians are illiterate. The police and army must be dramatically reorganized, and given effective training on how to deal with mass protests in ways consistent with democracy and the preservation of human rights.
Most important, Haiti must move forcefully forward in its transition to democracy from the 30-year reign of the Duvalier dictators, father and son.
Many of Haiti's urgencies require strong help from outside nations: Realistically, the United States, long a Haitian friend, is the only country likely to provide this assistance, both financial and technical, to a troubled neighbor in its hemisphere.
Yet only the Haitian ruling council can take the most important step: decide on a timetable for the return of democracy, and announce it. This can and should be done expeditiously.
Today's climate of uncertainty is a major cause of the current unrest; it raises fears among Haitians that the Duvaliers may be replaced not by democracy, but by yet another authoritarian regime. These fears are being exploited by extremist groups on both the right and left, which perpetuates uncertainty.
At the same time Washington has an urgent role to play. Rep. Walter Fauntroy (D) of the District of Columbia proposes that $21.7 million in economic aid be rechanneled to Haiti from assistance already approved by Congress and the President and now destined for other nations. This money would be used to aid the transition to democracy, aimed in large part at enlarging literacy programs and creating jobs. It is a sound proposal and should be approved when it is introduced in Congress.
But it is not necessary to wait: This rechanneling can and should be done by the State Department without waiting for a congressional directive. Haiti's needs are extraordinary, its situation precarious.
The longer the US waits to provide funds, the longer it sends the wrong signal to the Haitian people: that the Philippines, beneficiary of $150 million in similarly rechanneled funds, matters to Washington, but that Haiti evidently does not.
The funds should be provided now. Failure to act would allow extremist fringes of both left and right the opportunity to grow and, possibly, to thwart democracy in Haiti. And that would result in a much higher ultimate cost to Washington.