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Haiti in Reverse

HAITI still hasn't broken free from the culture of violence.The inauguration in February of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the nation's first democratically elected president appeared to be a giant step forward for the desperately poor land. There was reason to think that Haiti was finally emerging from the dark night of the Duvalier dynasty. But a military coup Monday in which scores of people reportedly died threatens to retrieve Haiti's tradition of brutal repression. The coup is to be deplored in the strongest terms. Fortunately, after intervention by the United States, France, and Venezuela, Aristide was permitted to leave Haiti alive. That will permit him to be a rallying figure for those in Haiti and in the international community working to restore democracy. In the first hours after the coup, it wasn't clear if it had wide military backing or was the work of a faction. Haiti's Army resembles a coalition of armed gangs more than a disciplined force under central command. If the coupmakers are disgruntled officers who felt threatened by Aristide's attempted reforms, they may be more willing to negotiate a return of the president than if they have political ambitions. The United Nations Security Council declined to take up the coup immediately, calling it an internal matter. Yet the international community has an important stake in preserving democracy in Haiti. In recent years democratic forces have swept through Latin America and the Caribbean, leaving only Cuba as a totalitarian barnacle in the hemisphere. The Organization of American States properly is seeking ways to roll back the coup. Such measures should not, at this time, include military action. One step could be the imposition of economic sanctions on Haiti, and the US already has suspended aid to the country. Sanctions would be a double-edged sword, however, as they would take a heavy toll on one of the poorest populations in the Western Hemisphere.

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