Hastening Haitian political reform

IN recent years the United States has pushed the dictatorial ruling regime of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, to make some progress toward democratization and to stop transgressing human rights. Otherwise, Congress has said, the vital $90 million in annual US aid and grants will be cut off. Unfortunately, Haiti's progress has been extremely modest. Congress and the Reagan administration should continue to demand that it do more in both areas: The suspicion is strong that recent moves have been primarily for show and not for effect.

Haiti has made only the smallest moves toward political pluralism, including the badly flawed referendum earlier this week. Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose title is President-for-life, still refuses to permit presidential elections. Among other features, the referendum permits the establishment of political parties, but it retains Mr. Duvalier as President-for-life and allows him to name his successor.

The government announced that ``Baby Doc's'' referendum had won approval, but it did not announce the vote: That's not the way democratic nations do things. But for the sake of credibility it is just as well, considering the repeat voting and the announced results of the last referendum, in 1971: 2,391,916 in favor of the government position, no voter against.

The suspicion is unavoidable that the latest referendum was conducted solely in an effort to keep Uncle Sam's money flowing.

In the area of human rights, Haiti has made somewhat more progress. Excesses by the secret police are said to have diminished, and some diplomats now say they believe no political prisoners are being held.

Yet last year Amnesty International said that ``torture and ill-treatment of detainees has been regularly reported'' to it since Duvalier assumed office in 1971, and that since 1980 it had frequently appealed to the government for information about people who it believed were in danger of being tortured. Amnesty said it had received ``no substantive response.''

For a year Haiti had not arrested any journalists; some specialists had speculated that the government was easing up. This week, however, police arrested six journalists ``for investigation'' and seized 3,000 copies of what they called an unauthorized newspaper.

Haiti has other problems besides the deprivation of political and personal freedoms. Two of the most serious are illiteracy and a flattened economy.

An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Haitians can neither read nor write. Two years ago the number of children in the rural schools declined precipitously when farmers, many of whom raise pigs, lost their livelihood when the government ordered all pigs destroyed because of disease. Farmers could no longer afford the funds necessary to send their children to school.

The average annual income of Haitian families is only $300, with rural residents earning perhaps half as much. At the same time the Duvalier family, and a small number of other Haitians, have built up enormous fortunes.

Besides US government aid, a major source of revenue for the nation is the money that Haitians now living in the United States send home to relatives.

Despite these problems, there are signs of progress.

On the economic front, pigs free of disease are being reintroduced into the country. As soon as much larger numbers are provided, many farmers should be able to be at least marginally self-sufficient, as in the past.

The referendum approved this week contains what some opponents think may be a time bomb for authoritarian rule. For the first time it legalizes political parties, thus strengthening the prospect of increased debate of political, economic, and human rights issues. The debate will be public if the regime permits it, but private if it does not. Either way the referendum may encourage a public demand for change -- a result which Duvalier surely did not anticipate. Meanwhile, the role of the United States

and other nations should be to hold the government of Haiti to account. If it wants aid -- whether in dollars or pigs -- it should be required to help its own people.

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