An Early Test for Clinton

New US president will face a tough hemisperic task: making sure that the Organization of American States can handle crises in Haiti and Peru

PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton's laudable campaign commitment to lend United States muscle to to democratic forces worldwide will get early tests in Haiti and Peru.

When constitutional rule was overturned in Haiti in September 1991 and in Peru in April 1992, Washington joined with other Latin American and Caribbean governments, under the mantle of the Organization of American States (OAS), to repair the democratic political systems of those nations.

Although OAS efforts have been more forceful than any previous inter-American initiative, democracy has yet to be restored in either country.

In Haiti - where the Army ousted the nation's first-ever freely elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide - virtually no progress has been made.

This past Sunday's elections for a constituent assembly in Peru - where President Alberto Fujimori suspended the constitution and shut down Congress and the courts - were, at best, only a small step toward renewing the democratic order.

Under these circumstances, the Clinton administration may well be tempted by two shortsighted and potentially harmful policy options. Conceivably, the new administration could become frustrated by the slow pace of multilateral diplomacy and seek to circumvent the OAS with more aggressive, unilateral action. Alternatively, the Clinton White House, once it recognizes the complexities of each situation and the difficulties of finding solutions, could consider curtailing US involvement and direct its energy to more pliable issues.

Both of these options should be scrapped. The right course for the US is to make every effort to work with and through the OAS, and try to make it an effective instrument for the collective defense of democratic government. This course offers the best hope, not only for resolving the immediate problems of Haiti and Peru, but also for confronting the continuing challenge of advancing and protecting democracy in the Americas.

Over the long term, the institutional capacities of the OAS to respond to breakdowns of democratic rule must be fortified. The OAS today is a fundamentally weak organization; its governance, leadership, staffing, and mandate all need substantially to be strengthened.

Its new Unit for Democracy, which has the direct operational responsibility for defending democracy, should be enlarged and adequately financed. It should, at a minimum, have the capacity to gather and analyze information on countries where constitutional order has broken down and to develop proposals for multilateral responses. Better yet, the unit could be transformed into an Inter-American Commission on Democracy, modeled after the Commission on Human Rights, with its own governing board and independe nt mandate.

More immediately, the US and other hemispheric governments need to formulate more effective operational strategies for dealing with the situations in Haiti and Peru.

In the 15 months since the Army took power in Haiti, the OAS has pressed for one solution: the return of Mr. Aristide to office. It is now time for a hard-nosed assessment of whether that goal is realistic or whether it now stands in the way of other, more practical approaches to attaining the central objective of reconstructing Haitian politics on democratic lines. The economic embargo imposed by the OAS on Haiti also needs to be reassessed to determine whether it can, in fact, be transformed into a use ful instrument of pressure. Clearly a fresh range of alternatives - both ends and means - should be considered in the case of Haiti.

The OAS has had somewhat more success in Peru. International pressure dissuaded President Fujimori from holding a plebiscite to legitimate his seizure of dictatorial power, helped to avoid any wide crackdown on dissidents, and led the government to organize this week's elections for the constituent assembly, which will draft a new constitution and serve as an interim legislature. Democratic politics, however, are unlikely to revive quickly in Peru because of Fujimori's autocratic tendencies, the popular support he enjoys, and the grave weakness of other political forces and institutions.

The OAS should keep a small civilian mission in Peru for some time to monitor the government's respect for political freedom and human rights, and its handling of upcoming municipal and provincial elections. The mission should not be a passive observer of events. It must engage the government and its opponents, encourage dialogue between them, and be ready to serve in a mediating role. Opportunities should be sought to enlist appropriate nongovernmental organizations to help nudge Peru's debilitated poli tical parties to reform their internal procedures so as to become more democratic and accountable.

Most Latin American and Caribbean nations are committed to cooperating closely with the US and the OAS in order to give democracy a real chance in Haiti and Peru. The Clinton administration can do most to reinforce that commitment - and turn it into effective action - by keeping the US actively involved in the OAS efforts and resisting any tempation to disengage or try to go it alone.

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