American troops based in Port-au-Prince are spending this holiday season packing. In September 1994, 20,000 troops led a multinational effort to restore President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a 1991 military coup d'tat. By February, the remaining 300 US soldiers should be gone.
The legacy the Americans leave behind, however, is being debated from the floor of the United States Senate to the slums of Port-au-Prince. On this subject, everyone from American politicians to Haitian peasants has an opinion, and they differ widely.
Republicans bemoan the $2 billion the US has invested to restore and uphold democracy. They point to countless examples of a failed US policy, not the least of which includes a Haitian government that has been paralyzed for more than two years. State employees misuse funds, the economy is back-pedaling, drug trafficking has increased - and in too many instances been linked to members of Haiti's newly created police force.
The Haitian National Police was in large part trained by the Americans. This hastily formed institution replaced the Armed Forces of Haiti, a brutal and lawless entity created during the American occupation of 1915-1934 that terrorized the population until it was disbanded by President Aristide in 1995.
The same oligarchy that used the Haitian military to protect its interests and helped finance the 1991 coup objected to the 1994 American intervention not because of the presence of foreign troops on Haitian soil, but because of Aristide's restoration.
The oligarchy's greatest fear was that Aristide would topple the power pyramid.
To peasants, farmers, and urban slum-dwellers - frequent victims of military repression and Aristide's most ardent supporters - the American intervention was a singular relief to three years of dictatorship, economic hardship due to an international embargo, and lack of basic rights such as freedom of speech and movement.
The American troops were their heroes because they restored Aristide, they provided security, and for a brief time, electricity.
When the American troops relinquished security control to the United Nations in 1995, the population continued to benefit from a reduced US presence as recipients of US humanitarian projects, such as new bridges, roads, schools, and medical assistance.
The departure of the US troops means a loss of this assistance which, in a country where the average person earns less than $1 a day, is no small matter. Foreign aid, particularly US funding, is drying up due, in part, to incessant in-fighting within the Haitian government that has caused the loss of nearly $500 million over the last few years. There has been no parliament since last January, when current President Ren Prval dissolved it under politically ambiguous circumstances.
Symbolically, if nothing else, the American troops provided a sense of security; their mandate prohibited them from interfering in Haiti's internal security affairs.
But their presence added a feeling of confidence that as yet the Haitian National Police still doesn't enjoy. Widespread fear and mistrust of the former Haitian Armed Forces has been transferred to the fledgling new police, despite an honest, hardworking, and competent police chief.
Midlevel management, an afterthought in creating the force, now has to contend with a smattering of officers who extort and abuse the population, and use their position to profit from illegal activities.
Many blame the US for not doing enough; others blame it for interfering too much. Still, Haitians must acknowledge their own participation in creating the bleak reality facing them today.
The Lavalas party, which solidified the majority of the population in 1990 and brought President Aristide to power in Haiti's first-ever democratic election, is now splintered.
Rather than uniting their efforts to build a democratic foundation for the future, the fractured groups engage in shortsighted battles, name-calling, and unsubstantiated accusations. Their inability to work together has created an opening for their former enemies, and fuels the fire for those who say that Haiti is not ready for democracy.
Legislative and municipal elections are slated for March 2000, with presidential elections by the end of the year. Aristide, who remains the country's most popular leader, has announced his intention to run. December 2000 is still a year away, but pre-electoral violence has started, with attacks against electoral representatives, candidates, and regional offices.
Haitians will participate in elections only if they feel their vote counts, and recent Haitian history has done little to reinforce that notion.
No amount of foreign aid, no quantity of foreign troops or international observers will bring people to the polls if they don't have concrete examples of what can be accomplished by competent, honest leaders working for the benefit of the country. Without that, democracy in Haiti doesn't have a chance.
* Kathie Klarreich worked as a freelance writer in Haiti from 1988 to 1998. She lives in Miami.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society