International idealism took on the dire realities of Haitian politics three years ago, and idealism is in retreat. As the remnants of an international peacekeeping force exit the impoverished Caribbean nation, they leave behind painfully little evidence of the "nation building" they hoped to advance.
Former Haitian Prime Minister Rosny Smarth may have pinpointed his country's problem when he resigned in frustration six months ago. "In this country," he said then, "power is a disease." At least he identified what needs to be healed.
Grasping after power has, in the past, led to dictatorial excess at the hands of such despicable leaders as Papa Doc Duvalier. That grim history was to be broken by the US-led military action in 1994 that restored an elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and toppled a corrupt junta. But glowing hopes for that effort, called a "triumph" by the Clinton administration, have nearly flickered out.
Behind Haiti's current slide back toward chaos is Mr. Aristide's determination to remain the country's main power broker even after he stepped aside to allow election of his longtime colleague Ren Prval as president. Aristide's party, Lavalas, has now split into two factions. The dominant one controls parliament and is committed to Aristide's personal agenda. Topping that agenda, presumably, is his return to full power through elections scheduled for 2000.
Meanwhile, as much as $1 billion in international aid goes unused. Needed economic reforms are tied up in parliament by Aristide backers. Popular rage is directed against the international intruders. And average Haitians, who have the creativity and drive to better themselves if given an opportunity, languish.
What can be done? The 500 US soldiers and 300 international policemen staying on can help build credible public safety and better roads. International aid may yet be put to use for economic development. And pressure can be exerted to implement needed reforms. But the disease of power is the basic ill in Haiti. Somehow idealism and hope have to be nurtured at the grass roots. Haiti's salvation is not going to come from outside.