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Stabilizing Haiti

February 13, 1986

Now that Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier has fled, leaving the island's government in the hands of a mix of military men and civilians, the United States and other nations must do what they can for its impoverished people. But to do it effectively means distinguishing between Haiti's immediate and long-term needs.

The most pressing needs now are food and medicine. The people of Haiti are among the most malnourished in the Western Hemisphere, and their plight has been exacerbated by the chaos that preceded the fall of Duvalier. Correspondents in Haiti have filed graphic reports of food warehouses being looted by mobs so desperate that people were reduced to scraping tiny handfuls of spilled flour and rice off the floor. Both the United States and France, with which Haiti has close historic ties, have promised aid to the new government, and the most dramatic gesture they could now make would be to send emergency relief supplies to the island. While emergency relief is normally reserved for countries that have suffered a natural disaster, a case can be made that the Duvalier regime's methodical exploitation of Haiti for almost 30 years had the same effect as an earthquake or hurricane in slow motion.

Most observers agree that long-term efforts to strengthen the Haitian economy, most of them well under way and administered by private relief agencies, are sound. These include campaigns to restore forests and farmland in the Haitian countryside and to build roads, water systems and other public works projects to stimulate industries in the nation's cities. Development experts say that massive infusions of money probably would not hasten the completion of these long-term efforts, but at least a government without Duvalier will be less likely to divert money from them for graft. Thus before any more long-term aid goes into Haiti, foreign governments and relief agencies must demand assurances from the new government that the money will be used properly.

One reason for such caution is the fact that some leaders of the interim military-civilian junta were loyal principals in the Duvalier government. In fairness it must be noted that none has been accused of participating in old regime's worst excesses. And in a nation where more than 80% of the population is illiterate, it will be hard to find an educated Haitian who did not, at one time or another, serve the government during the Duvalier years. Nevertheless, the question of how soon the interim government should be replaced in free and open elections will be the most difficult issue facing the Haitian people once their immediate needs are met. Some former opponents of Duvalier want elections in six months. Others say two years is a more realistic goal. Considering the sad state in which Duvalier left Haiti, perhaps the wisest course is to wait and see how well the interim government administers emergency aid. That could determine whether it is open and responsive enough to command popular support, and thus able to govern the nation for more than a few months.

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