Transition in Haiti

A TURBULENT past still beclouds Haiti, but the first-ever peaceful transfer of power to a popularly elected president could portend a brighter future.

Rene Preval took office last week with some notable strengths. He has the unequivocal backing of the wildly popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose own five-year term as president was spent mostly in exile in the United States. Mr. Preval has long served as Mr. Aristide's top aide and confidant.

His major challenge in office will be to institute the market-oriented economic reforms that Aristide never got around to. The Haitian economy needs to be freed of tight government controls before foreign investors, lured by the country's plenteous cheap labor, will come in.

Some of that investment could come from Haiti's huge diaspora, mostly in the US, many of whom have prospered and have the means to help their impoverished homeland.

Unless the business climate is reversed, vast unemployment could stymie even the most popular government. The socialism formerly professed by Aristide and Preval has to be firmly shelved.

Aristide's last-minute move to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba may cast doubts on Haiti's direction. But that, we hope, was more an affirmation of independence than an endorsement of Castro economics.

Preval has struck a pragmatic note in the key relationship with Washington. He understands political realities, and why the US troops that have helped keep peace in Haiti are sure to depart on schedule this spring. But he has been able to negotiate a six-month extension of the United Nations presence. That's an important accomplishment, giving his administration some bonus time to build stability.

It shouldn't be forgotten, either, that Preval got 88 percent of the vote in December's election. He and Aristide, who won't be very far in the background during Preval's tenure, have a mandate. May they use it wisely to serve Haiti's long-suffering people.

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