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A US Hands-Off in Haiti

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Even though the US military put him and Haiti's democracy back in its rightful place in 1994, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide still views Washington with a distrust that runs deep. So it's just as well that other outsiders try to solve the current political crisis in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

President Bush is busy enough with democracy building in liberated Iraq. And in fact, the United States Embassy in Haiti asked its nonessential workers to leave last week as more protests are expected. Some 50 killings have been reported in anti-Aristide demonstrations in recent months.

This new crisis has led to diplomatic intervention by Haiti's neighbors in the Caribbean, with the US, Europe, and Latin America coaching from the side. On Saturday, Mr. Aristide met with three leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Jamaica. He agreed to several political reforms and to restrain the armed gangs that have been attacking his opponents.

Aristide's promised concessions fell short of the opposition's demand that he resign now, well before his term ends in 2006. And his opponents doubt his willingness to carry out any reforms. The heavy-handed rule of this former firebrand priest has alienated many supporters who are now leading the opposition.

Despite calls within Haiti for Aristide to step down, the international community could hardly call for an elected president to resign. While perhaps expedient, his ouster would further damage Haiti's democracy.

The 2000 vote, though flawed, seems to have given Aristide wide support. Still, the opposition was particularly irked over his influence in last May's parliamentary elections, which then ignited protests. And he's used the police as a political tool.

A pick-up in violence in December so worried the regional countries that CARICOM took the unprecedented step of meeting with 14 members of Aristide's opposition. It's even considered economic sanctions on Haiti.

Both CARICOM and the Organization of American States will closely monitor how well Aristide implements reforms. Most of all, he needs to replace the current prime minister with one acceptable to the opposition.

It's possible most of Haiti's impoverish 7.5 million people still support Aristide, or will favor his ruling party. But as president, he needs outside advice in how to run a democracy.

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