LONDON — The United States is committed to building democracies in Afghan-istan and Iraq. But there is a country much closer to home that is in desperate need of help - a country where the US and the international community have left a job half done and have abandoned millions of innocent citizens to poverty and despair.
That country is Haiti. Back in 1994, Bill Clinton and the Organization of American States (OAS) called the bluff of a nasty military dictatorship there. After a brief showdown, they succeeded in restoring to power the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest whose populist Creole rhetoric captured the hearts of the poor masses. The United Nations came in to help create an independent judiciary and a new police force, and to lay the basis for continued democratic rule.
Ever since, Mr. Aristide - who, along the way, resigned his priesthood and lost much of his popularity - or his associates have held power. But Haiti is poorer than ever, and the political situation has shown little or no improvement. During the months they were in the country, American troops helped build a few schools and a few roads, but then pulled out, anxious not to be seen as an occupying power.
The UN stayed much longer. Its compound at the international airport in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, received plane loads of aid, as well as small numbers of troops and larger numbers of international experts in judicial reform, police training, and human rights. But because of allegations that Aristide's election to his second presidency in late 2000 was rigged, the UN pulled out of Haiti completely the day before he took office in February 2001. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the continuing instability in the country, and warned that Haiti could become an international "pariah" if the situation continued.
And pariah it has become.
International agencies and many individual countries have refused to send aid or enter into financial deals with the Aristide government. The opposition is so fragmented it can only agree on the "illegality" of the Aristide administration and complain of repeated attacks by Aristide thugs or other government attempts to disrupt democratic rights.
Aristide - who grew to fame promoting the rights of the poor through rabble-rousing liberation theology - has seen a dramatic erosion of his charismatic appeal to many ordinary Haitians. They have seen him keep few of his promises over the past decade and find themselves even poorer and more desperate than ever. The president now rarely appears in public, staying enclosed behind the high walls of his estate in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Tabarre, earning himself the nickname "baron of Tabarre."
This summer, Aristide announced that voodoo, the animistic belief practiced throughout rural Haiti, would be recognized as an official religion alongside Roman Cath-olicism and Pro-testant faiths. Haitian critics of his rule argue that this shows how desperate he has become in his efforts to find support ahead of legislative elections, due at the end of the year or early in 2004. These critics also recall the way the Duvalier dictatorship coopted voodoo beliefs to fan public fears and used the tontons macoute (gangs of thugs) to terrorize the populace. And they suggest that today's criminal groups - the chimères - that operate at night in rural areas are simply this government's version of the tontons macoute.
Opposition groups in Haiti are refusing to participate in the coming elections. They claim they'll be rigged by the government, and they don't want to give Aristide further legitimacy. The OAS is starting from scratch, hurriedly trying to set up an electoral commission that all sides can agree will impartially guarantee free and fair elections.
The Bush administration could and should make a vital difference. The White House could put pressure on the Aristide regime to guarantee the rights of the opposition parties to organize and campaign without fear. It could also pressure the opposition to end its three-year boycott of the government and convince them that the play of political forces can bring progress to all Haitians.
If the US continues to look the other way, Haiti's future is grim. With no genuine political participation, democratic practice - never truly established since the fall of the Duvaliers 17 years ago - will wither more. The only people who will find comfort in that are the more extreme elements in the Aristide entourage, the drug bosses who thrive in any "failed state" of the Caribbean and Latin America, and the boat-builders who will be rubbing their hands, anticipating increased business from compatriots fleeing across the sea to the US.
• Nick Caistor is a British journalist who recently visited Haiti for the BBC World Service.