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Half-Steps for Haiti

IN the stare-down between democracy and dictatorship in Haiti, both sides have blinked.

The military leaders who seized power Sept. 30 in a coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, and the oligarchical opponents of Mr. Aristide in the Haitian Parliament are close to approving an agreement signed in Washington last week to permit a semblance of democratic government in the island nation.

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Under the accord, brokered by the Organization of American States (OAS), Aristide is acknowledged to be the head of state, but he will not be permitted to return from his exile in Venezuela at this time. A "government of national unity" will be administered by a designated prime minister, Rene Theodore, who, though leader of Haiti's Communist Party, is regarded as a moderate. Mr. Theodore, consulting with Aristide by telephone, will work to create conditions of stability and a timetable under which the p resident will be allowed to come back. Also, OAS human-rights monitors will be sent to Haiti.

While those elements of the agreement are hopeful, the Army coupmakers and their parliamentary supporters won points, as well. The military plotters will be protected by an amnesty, and the international trade embargo against Haiti will be lifted before Aristide's return is assured.

It's too early to either cheer or bemoan the accord. If it falls short in terms of democratic principle, the compromises it embraces may work in practice.

The return of Aristide and his resumption of full constitutional powers will be important symbols of democracy, but Aristide's administration was characterized at times by reckless demagoguery, arbitrary exercises of power, and indifference to constitutional rules. If Theodore can lead Haiti through a transitional period and create a climate favorable to easing Aristide back into power, that may be better for Haitian democracy in the long run than an abrupt return of the polarizing president.

Also, while the pact doesn't send the Army back to its barracks chastened and repentant, it points the soldiers toward the barracks. Critics of the amnesty fear that the Army will continue to strong-arm civilian leaders and be a force for organized thuggery. Those are legitimate concerns. But given Haiti's blood-stained history, it's unreasonable to expect that overnight the Army will become a model instrument of democratic government, willingly subordinate to civilian control.

In Haiti the seeds of democracy have fallen on barren ground. They may sprout only slowly. Yet the new accord tills the soil.

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