Meager hopes in Haiti

THE new ruler of Haiti, Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, says the ``final objective'' of his government is a return to democracy. Let's hope so. Little in Haiti's recent history shows even the minimum of stability and principled leadership needed to sustain democracy. Already General Avril's leadership is challenged by mutinies among noncommissioned officers in the Army and a wave of revenge killings by mobs.

Since the hurried departure of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in February of 1986, the country has tried, fitfully, to arrive at some semblance of democratic process. A constitution was written, then abrogated by the now exiled leader, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy. An electoral commission was formed, then thwarted by General Namphy. Elections scheduled for last November ended in bloodshed and cancellation.

Now Namphy is gone, and some see Avril as a possible change for the better. But habits of authoritarian control and quick resort to violence remain. Avril has named a Cabinet that has only one military figure. Some of the civilians he has chosen, however, once served the corrupt and viciously repressive Duvaliers. Avril himself was a close Duvalier associate.

Can such people really make good on promises of ``internal dialogue'' and ``national reconciliation''?

One test will be concrete measures to restrain the violent gangs - the so-called Tonton Macoutes, formerly Duvalier's secret police - who terrorize any group or individual brave enough to challenge Haitian politics as usual. Younger military officers involved in the overthrow of Namphy want to rein in these thugs.

Another test will be the government's treatment of Col. Jean-Claude Paul, indicted in March by a grand jury in Miami on charges of drug trafficking. The US wants him extradited. Yet another test will be setting a clear timetable for free elections.

The Haitians, a people who retain their vibrancy and yearning for betterment despite an extended political nightmare, are going to need acts, not words, before they can start breathing easier.

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