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Helping Haiti

Stubborn instability is Haiti's burden. The continuing United States and United Nations presence there is intended to provide Haiti with enough stability to allow the construction of durable civic and economic structures. In this way the Caribbean republic, with its sad history of misgovernment and violence, might have the prospect of progress.

Some Haitian nationalists, however, don't see the foreign involvement in Haiti in those terms at all. They view it, rather, as meddling in the country's affairs for the purpose of exploiting its slowly privatizing economy and protecting the remnants of the island nation's privileged class.

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Such differing perspectives underscore the difficulties facing US policymakers as they weigh the situation in Haiti. The Clinton administration views the intervention there as a foreign-policy success. A corrupt military regime was finally removed, and the country's duly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was restored to office. Mr. Aristide has since been succeeded as president by his close colleague Ren Prval, through an election that marked Haiti's first peaceful transfer of power.

Washington is committed to do what's necessary to ensure that Haiti's trek toward order and democracy is not reversed. The forces of instability within the country make that commitment extraordinarily tricky. Surviving elements of the Tonton Macoutes, the government thugs rampant during the Duvalier dictatorships; jobless ex-soldiers resentful over the disbanding of the old armed forces; and radical Aristide supporters - all have the potential for violence. Overarching all other factors is the island's oppressive poverty, breeding desperation.

The US and UN have taken on the job of helping Haiti build a new police force to replace the former, highly corrupt security units. UN policemen from Canada, Jordan, and other countries have been on hand to fill the void until a Haitian force is trained. The US has handled training. But so far, the Haitian trainees have had a mixed record - better, perhaps, than the old "police" but still much too prone to wreaking violence on the citizenry they're supposed to protect. The work of building a credible justice system in Haiti has a long way to go.

How does the US maintain its role in that work - as well as in other urgent projects such as health services and transportation infrastructure - without appearing to turn a helping hand into a high-handed "occupation"?

The simple answer to that question is to continue the task of fostering stability in Haiti, but always showing respect for Haitian sensitivities, consulting with the Haitians at every turn, and insisting that Haiti's grass roots - individuals and community groups - be involved in planning and execution. In practice, nothing will be simple.

In Haiti, too much help from abroad is much better than too little. Some critics viewed recent US efforts to strengthen the security around President Prval as heavy-handed. Yet to withhold such assistance, and thus widen the opening for another coup, would be courting disaster. With the landing of 20,000 American troops two years ago, the US made a huge investment in Haitian stability. The troops are gone, but that investment should be protected - not to preserve a Clinton achievement in the midst of an election campaign, but to enhance regional stability and to address a prolonged humanitarian emergency on our doorstep.

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