HAITI is using well its last best chance to recover from decades of dictatorship. When President Clinton visits Port-au-Prince March 31 he will find a country climbing gradually out of the mire of authoritarian abuse.
October's United States invasion of Haiti, brokered and modulated as it was by President Carter's mediating mission, enabled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resume governing in comparative peace. As US control of the now-reduced military peacekeeping force is transferred March 31 to the United Nations, it is essential that Mr. Aristide continue to be support-ed by 2,400 American and 3,000 Pakistani and other UN troops.
Despite the fears of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and others, restoring Aristide to power by the threat of force, and helping to maintain his legitimacy, has been a noble enterprise.
President Aristide has been bold. By retiring most of his Army's high command and reducing the number of soldiers drastically, he has broken the tradition of military interference in Haitian society. With Canadian and American assistance, he is training a police force (on the Costa Rican model). Presumably, he will want to train a border patrol, too, and perhaps an antismuggling unit.
By sidelining the thoroughly corrupt Army, and by refusing to create his own group of armed enforcers (whatever they might be called), Aristide has sent powerful signals throughout Haiti: Participatory democracy may have a chance to develop roots.
Soldiers have abused Haitian civilians and interfered mightily in politics since the birth of the republic in 1804. The narco-terror of Haiti's military juntas was no aberration. By coupling a drastic downsizing of the Army with the beginnings of good government, Aristide has set Haiti on a new and promising course. To continue the progress, Aristide and his associates will need to revive the shattered economy, with UN backing to maintain stability, and organize fair legislative and municipal elections in June. Then, with the new parliament in office, he must prepare for his own succession at the end of the year.
The first task is proving almost impossible. Renewed foreign investment has been attracted only slowly to Haiti. Foreign aid for reconstruction of the infrastructure has helped. So have the expenditures of the US and UN forces. Private foundations have also begun to inject cash into the economy. But much more is needed. Despite the antagonism of the leaders of the 104th Congress, Haiti deserves sustained United States help. It should be seen as an investment for Haiti, for democracy in the Caribbean, and, cynically, for Florida and other likely destinations of impoverished Haitian refugees.
Whether the newly trained police force will be able to reduce crime in Haiti remains to be seen. Whether United States troops will continue to perform as well under United Nations command also remains to be seen. That they do so, and that the demilitarization of Haiti succeeds, is in the interests of all who wish to see Haiti climb out of its authoritarian past.
Thus far, Aristide is firmly determined to leave office on time, despite his forcibly interrupted term in office, and despite the fact that the reconstruction of Haiti will take many years and needs the kind of skillful leadership he has demonstrated. Many among his supporters will wish to amend the Constitution, as was done in Argentina to permit President Carlos Saul Menem to stay in office. But it is much more important for the course of democracy in Haiti for Aristide to step down early next year, as planned.