Pity the poor people of Haiti. Once again, their hopes for democratic rule have been crushed, this time by a military revolt that seized power this week from the impoverished nation's first elected government in more than 30 years.
Just days after being fired from his job and placed under house arrest, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy - aided by the army - overthrew the civilian government and declared himself the leader of Haiti.The civilian president, Leslie Manigat, and some of his top aides, were taken away after a gunfight at the National Palace. Manigat was allowed to leave the country. He had held office only four months. The newly-elected national assembly also was dissolved by the gun-waving Namphy.
Any chance for free elections and civilian rule appear to have been put on the back shelf indefinitely.
The Caribbean island nation of Haiti has been ruled by despots since 1957 when Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier became president in a disputed election and subsequently established a dictatorship. His son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, took over when his father died in 1971. Anti-government demonstrations finally cause Duvalier to flee to France in 1986, although he plundered the treasury before he left.
Namphy headed a military junta that took power after Duvalier's departure. In March 1987, voters approved a new constitution, putting elections in the hands of a civilian election commission.
As elections neared in June 1987, Namphy's junta tried to take over the process. Diplomatic pressure and bloody riots forced the junta to back down. On election day, November 1987, gunmen killed at least 34 voters, the election was called off, and Namphy dissolved the election commission.
New voting took place last January, but opponents refused to take part and voter turnout was very light. Manigat, a 57-year-old university professor who spent most of the Duvalier years in exile, was chosen president.
In an apparent power grab, Namphy last week began retiring or transferring army officers who supported the civilian government. As a result, Namphy himself was fired by the president along with two other generals. But the civilian government has now fallen.
The U.S. has two choices. It can stand by and let Haiti fall into political darkness once more, or it can seek to give Namphy a hard shove out of office. There are dangers in that kind of interference, as the experience with Panama's Noriega showed.
But Namphy is hardly as firmly rooted as Noriega and much more vulnerable. The U.S. ought to gather allies from other Latin nations and jointly bring pressure on Namphy to restore civilian rule.
Otherwise, the people of Haiti - already suffering from some of the worst poverty in the poor Caribbean - will continue to be the victims of power-hungry figures who use the unfortunate country to feed their own egos and pocketbooks.