HEMISPHERIC sanctions have edged Haiti back toward democracy. But will this enforced experiment work?
This month Haiti's estranged parliament, and presumably its military junta, agreed to permit President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return from exile in Venezuela. In exchange for a resumption of the presidency, he in turn promised to accept Rene Theodore, a nominee of the Haitian Senate, as the country's prime minister.
Since the Rev. Aristide was ousted by the military in September because of his autocratic tendencies, violent rhetoric, and antagonism to middle-class capitalism, parliament and its armed supporters presumably are now prepared to have their elected president back, but only if his powers are restrained and someone like Mr. Theodore effectively runs the country.
Although Theodore ironically leads Haiti's tiny and inconsequential unified Communist Party, he is a strong critic of Aristide and his appointment seems like a healthy solution to the country's political conundrum.
Aristide, a young, militant Catholic priest, was the overwhelming favorite of the Haitian people when they went to the polls in late 1990.
The United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) welcomed the results of Haiti's first full free balloting for president.
To have permitted a local junta, ratified by parliament, to annul Aristide's popular mandate would have posed a dangerous precedent for and within the hemisphere.
So the OAS, the US, and most of Haiti's neighbors imposed an economic boycott on the poorest nation in the hemisphere. It quickly brought the country's already faltering economy to its knees, and led to protracted negotiations, brokered by the OAS, between Aristide and the Haitian parliament.
The US and the OAS want popular democratic rule to continue, and the results of the 1990 election to be sustained. They are quite determined to keep Haiti, and the rest of the nations of the hemisphere, on a democratic track.
But they do not necessarily want Aristide to return to his old ways of personal rule. So the new compromise, providing it works and despite the moderate Theodore's communist affiliations, may provide a reasonable method of sanctifying the popular mandate of 1990 while simultaneously strengthening the possibility of good government.
"Possibility" is the key modifier. Haiti has never known indigenous good government. Aristide, a radical populist who used fiery language to rouse slum-dwellers to violence, never tried very hard to use his mandate to reconstruct a nation plundered outrageously during nearly three decades of dictatorial misrule by the Duvaliers - father Francois (Papa Doc) and son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) - and five years of military control by a collection of petty despots.
Aristide ignored parliament almost as disdainfully as his predecessors did. He ignored the business classes. And he attempted to ignore and undercut the military. His performance in office belied the great promise of his electoral victory.
But he might have avoided being ousted from office, and then having that ouster ratified by parliament, if he had begun developing Haiti both politically and economically.
The great vote-getter turned out to have no feel for politics, no appreciation of the importance of developing coalitions between classes and interest groups, and no more than a rudimentary understanding of Haiti's desperate economic predicament.
Aristide appropriately attacked the old ruling classes, their corruption, and their avaricious tendencies. But then, like so many Haitian rulers before him, he acted as they did. His brief presidency seemed to Haitian democrats every bit as threatening to the dream of Haitian progress as the regimes of earlier despots.
Putative Prime Minister Theodore's program, and the full extent of his mandate, are unknown. As in so many poor countries, his anointing resulted from a compromise between shadowy power-brokers who represented military, business, and foreign influences.
Whether he and Aristide can fashion a workable plan for Haiti's future must remain a question. If they cannot, the last best chance for democracy in Haiti will have failed, and all Haitians and all Americans will be the poorer for that failure.
Fortunately, there remains an important role for the US and the OAS. Once electoral continuity is established, the embargo can be lifted.
Even more critically, the US and the nations of the Americas can provide clear incentives for democratic development. Aiding Haiti is inexpensive, for dollars stretch very far. Backing projects that result in forward-looking economic and political restructuring makes good sense.
We must help Haiti help itself.