Haiti's Hopes

Haiti's cultural vibrancy rang out during the recent visit there by the US-based, but Haitian inspired, pop music group, the Fugees. Too bad some of that energy and enthusiasm couldn't be transferred to the political system.

Earlier this month, Haiti's fragile democratic processes sounded a dull note. Barely 5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in parliamentary elections. The skimpy turnout raises new questions about the effectiveness of international efforts to help the Caribbean nation reverse a history of violence and poverty.

Complicating matters, at present, is friction between the government and the man who wields the greatest political influence in Haiti, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The current president, Ren Prval, a longtime colleague of Aristide's, wants to move Haiti toward better times through tough free-market economic reforms, including privatization of state-owned utilities and other companies. Many Haitians balk at privatization, understandably, since it threatens further job losses in a country where jobs are already few. Rifts are deep in Parliament, which has failed for seven months to pass a budget. But rationalization of the economy, through selling off inefficient state-owned businesses and shaping a sound national budget, is the key to future international aid and foreign investment. Those in turn would ease poverty and generate jobs. Hence Haiti's dilemma.

Mr. Aristide, who was ousted by a military coup in 1991 and returned to power through US armed intervention in 1994, could help resolve this dilemma by fostering compromise and greater unity. Instead he has criticized Prval's economic policies and allowed his supporters to thwart them. What, one might ask Aristide, are your constructive alternatives to the economic restructuring Prval backs?

Haiti needs a degree of unified purpose among its top leaders, since the society is still threatened by remnants of the official gangs that enforced the vicious Duvalier dictatorships. In the Haitian context, political differences all too easily slip toward violence.

Disturbing events in Haiti should not sound an international retreat. Some 1,300 United Nations peacekeepers are still in the country, along with about 480 American soldiers. A portion of these forces is likely to remain beyond the UN's July 31 scheduled departure. That's wise. But even wiser would be some creative financial aid to help Haiti become something other than an international charity case whose main product is economic refugees. As state-owned concerns change hands or close, something else has to promise new employment.

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