WITH the departure of Gen. Prosper Avril, Haiti has yet another chance to show that it can break with its tragic past. A coalition of civilian leaders has selected one of the country's Supreme Court justices to serve as interim president. The army's new leader, Gen. Herard Abraham, says he supports the move toward civilian government. But in Haiti all bets are hedged. General Avril came to power 18 months ago promising a transition to popular rule through elections. He just could never pin down a date. The country wasn't ready, he said. Instead he, like leaders before him, plundered and extorted.
The military's corruption and violence against citizens lingers from the Duvalierist past. Remnants of the feared Tonton Macoutes secret police still roam the streets of Port-Au-Prince. There's concern Avril's presidential guard, now being dispersed, could add to the ranks of paramilitary thugs.
Another concern is the tendency of Haitians, driven by desperation and poverty, to rampage during times of political change and spark a military reaction. The homes of some Avril supporters have been attacked, and as many as 20 people have been killed since the general's resignation.
On the positive side, political leaders have shown rare unanimity in naming an interim government and preparing for elections. Their efforts are backed by the country's business community. If all goes well, Haitians will get an opportunity to vote within a few months. But an election and institutionalized democracy are not the same thing.
The United States has quietly guided the process of change. The American ambassador, Alvin P. Adams, mediated negotiations between Avril and the opposition, and a US Air Force plane carried the general into exile. Aid, both moral and tangible, will be much needed in the weeks ahead.
Haiti's people have shown their revulsion for despotism. Now, we hope, they'll have an opportunity to show their readiness for democracy.