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Ordinarily, it might be hard to sell the argument that political chaos is prima facie evidence of democracy at work.

But in Haiti, where dictators historically allowed little room for political dispute, the current tension between President Rene Preval and predecessor Jean-Bertrand Aristide is indeed an indication that the tiny, troubled nation is embracing the messiness of democracy. The alternative could easily have been the stability of another takeover.

But Haiti's nascent democracy still needs help. That's why the Clinton administration, while arguing that democracy is taking hold, should make sure that the United Nations mission there is extended beyond its July 31 deadline. Haiti must be given a fighting chance to complete its transition.

The United States, which ousted coup leaders and restored the democratically elected Aristide to power in 1994, has invested a lot in helping the Haitian people govern themselves. It would be foolish to let the gains dissolve at this point by leaving Haiti on its own too soon.

Critics will complain that Haiti is beset with problems and that the United States cannot remain there forever. They are right (though U.S. forces have remained in other nations for far longer). But they also ignore the progress.

The effort to train a civilian police force has not eliminated violence in Haiti. But it's also true that the new police are a vast improvement over the army soldiers who ruled the streets while coup leaders were in power, and any abuses no longer have the imprimatur of the government.

Similarly, the announced resignation of pro-reform Prime Minister Rosny Smarth last month amid unrelenting sniping from Aristide backers helped toss the government into turmoil. New legislation can't be introduced because a new government has yet to form, and foreign aid can't be spent because the parliament has trouble convening a quorum.

But it's just as true that the crisis has not thrown the entire nation into violence or brought down the elected presidency. That, in itself, is evidence that Haiti is making strides and simply needs more time under U.N. tutelage.

Most disconcerting has been Preval's lack of assertiveness in coping with the political crisis as the shadow of Aristide hangs over Port-au-Prince. Preval has taken a low profile in the wake of mounting problems and criticism of the privatization efforts that Haiti must pursue if it's to turn itself around. Preval must become more forceful. But that will be easier if he has the reassurance of knowing that the U.N. contingent won't pack up and leave at the end of the month.

The popular Aristide is expected to run again in 2000 after being constitutionally barred from running for successive terms. His penchant for government control of the economy to help Haiti's impoverished masses is sure to provide more ammunition for critics of the U.S. intervention who loathed Aristide in the first place.

But the United States was not backing Aristide when it sent 5,000 troops to Haiti three years ago. It was backing the concept of representative government and the Haitian people's right to self-determination.

That's still what's at stake as Haiti struggles to embrace democracy while also pulling itself from the grip of rampant poverty. The growing pains it is experiencing were inevitable. What it needs is a continued helping hand from the United Nations, not a premature withdrawal that could undermine what has been accomplished so far.

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