ON Feb. 7, Rene Preval replaces the charismatic and controversial Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti's president and inaugurates the next chapter in Haiti's turbulent history. In almost two centuries of independence, there have been 21 constitutions and 41 heads of state: Of those, 29 were overthrown or assassinated.
Mr. Aristide's hand-picked successor easily swept December's elections. That Mr. Preval enjoys little of his predecessor's almost universal popularity may not be a weakness in this hemisphere's poorest country. Haitians have long been held hostage by a small predatory elite and, more recently, by economic sanctions. Haiti's economy resembles those of Rwanda, Somalia, and Bosnia.
Aristide's supporters and adversaries alike agree that his legacy is the removal of dictatorship. Yet concrete benefits for Haiti's long-suffering people have yet to appear. Nonetheless, hope flickers. As one peasant said, ''Democracy doesn't necessarily mean more food, but without democracy there is no hope for more food.''
The 'kleptocratic' state
In order to conserve human rights gains and provide minimal economic benefits for the vast majority of Haiti's desperately poor population, Preval must move beyond rhetoric. His task is to attack the remains of what some call a ''kleptocratic'' state.
Security is a prerequisite. In fact, the establishment of some semblance of law and order was the most important contribution of the 23,000 American soldiers sent to Haiti in September 1994. Relative stability is expected to continue until the end of this month, thanks to the more than 2,000 US Special Forces, who form the backbone of the United Nations' military and police operation in Haiti.
But the requirements of the 1996 presidential campaign are pushing Washington to abandon the Haiti effort prematurely. The post-cold-war recipe for the problems of countries torn apart by civil strife or war is to hold elections, period. There is no patience for ''nation building.'' Ironically, we seem finally to be taking to heart former Vermont Sen. George Aiken's jocular mid-1960s policy prescription for American withdrawal from Vietnam: ''Let's declare victory and go home.''
The American retreat from Haiti reflects the new mantra for an ''exit strategy,'' which to Haitians (not to mention Bosnians) means the absence of an overarching vision or concrete objective. Why was the effort in Haiti begun with a departure schedule fixed unrealistically in advance and without a commitment to leave behind sustainable local institutions?
A dangerous vacuum
The departure of the peacekeeping soldiers will create a security vacuum, which is why President-elect Preval contradicted Aristide and requested an extension of the UN's military presence. Washington appears willing to pay for a reduced United Nations operation, even if no American troops will participate.
But until a professional police force is trained, Haiti will remain on the brink of chaos. Most people on the 7,000-member police force have little education and little training - four months as compared with two years required of high school graduates in the United States. The force includes members of the former Haitian Army and even militiamen of ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as the Tonton Macoutes. The judiciary remains a sham.
American support for a sustained military presence - even if at a reduced level and by non-US forces - is a necessary but insufficient condition for democratization and economic progress. Although a substantial military presence won't guarantee success, its absence will guarantee failure. And in spite of budgetary pressures, US resources and expertise will be required for some time.
Overcoming two centuries of instability and poverty will require more than the brief wave of either a US or UN wand.