HAITI is headed toward a couple of important milestones along its path to democracy and order. At the end of this month, the United Nations will assume the policing and monitoring duties now shouldered by the United States. The outlook appears good for a smooth transition, with a few thousand American troops remaining as part of the international force.
The presence of outside peacekeepers guarantees that outlaw elements in Haiti cannot again get the upper hand. Without it, the remnants of the country's violent, oppressive past could regroup, rearm, and reinstate chaos. With it, the restored presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide has a chance, at least, of patching up Haiti's tattered institutions of government and restarting its economy.
The latter task is slowly under way, helped along by aid from the UN and other agencies. A key factor will be the participation of Haitian exiles, many of whom have money to invest. So far, most are waiting to see whether the return to civilian rule takes hold.
That's one reason June 4, the scheduled date for local and legislative elections in Haiti, will be a particularly critical milestone. The elections will test the country's ability to allow people a political say free of the terror and intimidation that accompanied past Haitian votes. It will also test President Aristide's ability to be an evenhanded facilitator of democratic processes, rather than a manipulator of the public's mood or a distributor of campaign money.
Since returning to office last fall, the president has in fact exhibited a capacity for balance and temperance that many might not have anticipated. He has taken forceful actions at times, such as the recent removal of nearly all of Haiti's remaining military brass. That step, unmistakably asserting the primacy of civil authority after years of military meddling, was applauded by most observers of the country.
Aristide's biggest decision may come at the end of the year when his presidential term expires. Under Haiti's Constitution, he can serve only one term. The temptation to stay on, especially in view of his long exile in the US, could be great. But the integrity of the democratic system he is helping to construct would probably be better served if he gracefully stepped down.