Haiti: Opposition - and US - must step up to bat

Just as dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier defied rumors and the reality that he could no longer govern, right up to the moment he abruptly fled this Caribbean nation in 1986, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said he'd see his five-year term through to February 2006. But by Sunday morning the rumors that had ricocheted like looter's bullets through the capital last week were confirmed: Haitians woke up to hear that their president was gone.

While the head of Haiti's supreme court said he was taking charge Sunday, and the US said a multinational peacekeeping force was on its way, it was unclear who really was in charge. Looting and chaos erupted on the city streets.

In Petionville, the mountain town above the capital, one man with a pistol offered a hint of the rationality that, in the end, has to be grasped here. As crowd of teenagers looted the police station, taking motorcycles and teleivions and releasing prisoners, the man shot in the air to get their attention. He told them they must stop because when a police force is reinstated, they'd need an intact police station to do their job. It was a sad reminder and a good example of what has to happen: the forces that forced Aristide out must work together to salvage what's left.

Mr. Aristide's exit came on the heels of a stern US message late Saturday that it was time for him to go - a plan apparently brokered by Secretary of State Colin Powell, with the help of the UN and France.

This government rupture is the 33rd in Haiti's 200-plus-year history, and the second time for Aristide, who was forced out in a military coup just seven months after taking office in 1991 as the nation's first democratically elected leader. He returned only with the support of more than 20,000 US troops in October 1994. After he finished his first term, he allowed a handpicked successor to hold his place until he was eligible to run again in 2000.

Aristide's popularity was already slipping by his second term, and the president was more focused on maintaining power than governing. The very steps he took to consolidate his power helped to him in; dismantling the military, arming gangs to muscle down any opposition, and allowing incompetent and corrupt officials to head state institutions.

But there's more than enough blame to spread around. The US was more interested in making sure that Haiti's internal problems didn't become their domestic nightmare of boat people landing on Florida shores. That needed to be avoided at all cost.

The US was a key player in forming Haiti's police force. It did not provide enough support, training, or equipment.

Guy Philippe, a former Army officer and police captain who has led the rebel insurgency that helped push Aristide out, told me last Wednesday that there wasn't even any training for mid-level officers. Mr. Philippe, whose rebels over the last few weeks swallowed up most of the northern part of the country with the objective of taking over Port-au-Prince, has vowed to lay down his guns and support a new government.

The opposition of political parties, civic leaders, students, and human rights groups - the majority of whom once wholeheartedly backed Aristide - have all said that they will work together once Aristide is gone.

Now they all will have their chance in this political melee: the rebels to put down their guns and the opposition parties to work together. And because history - well known to the US, with its spotty record of intervention here - is a guide, this transition period is probably going to be dangerous, and the international community bears a responsibility to guide it. There is no security force in the country. Only an international presence can insure that the massive number of weapons be removed from the streets, that business resume without fear of looting, that banks can open for the first time in nearly two weeks, and that some sense of normalcy return to the country.

An unequivocal relationship must be reinstated with international lenders, aid agencies, and foreign governments to provide the resources needed to clean house internally so that state institutions will be run with a competence and honesty that this country has never seen. Otherwise, no matter who takes over, the same forces that have kept this country leapfrogging from one leader to another will continue.

As a superpower, the US stomps around other parts of the world declaring its nation-building responsibilities. Indeed, it has a moral and humanitarian obligation to lend as serious a hand in imposing its democratic principles here as it does elsewhere. And those leaders who've been asking for Aristide's departure must prove to the rest of the world that they are, after 200 years, capable of a stable and successful democracy.

Kathie Klarreich is a freelance writer who covers Haiti.

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