PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - In a faded red dress and broken flip-flops, Sonya Noel watched with resignation as gangsters erected flaming barricades to block Cite Soleil's street market just two days after U.N. troops had cleared away earlier impediments to commerce.
The fruit and snack vendors in the sprawling seaside slum had been driven off the streets by violence for months, deprived of their livelihood and threatened by gunmen demanding the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"There's shooting all over the place now. It's worse since the U.N. came in," Noel lamented.
With Haiti's interim government halfway through its 18-month mandate and the Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping mission nearly at full strength, security remains elusive in a society so broken it can't even cobble together the means to accept humanitarian aid.
Fruitless efforts to impose peace and pave the way for elections after years of dictatorship and chaos have given rise to debate about whether Haitians are capable of resolving their own crises or should have their country placed under international control.
In a briefing paper prepared for American military commanders on security challenges in Latin America, Gabriel Marcella of the U.S. Army War College warned that Haiti was undergoing an implosion and suggested that an international protectorate might be the only way to contain the disaster.
"Haiti's violence is the consequence of a predatory state, a nonexistent political culture, economic collapse and ecological destruction," Marcella wrote in the November advisory. "Long-term measures are necessary, to the point of considering Haiti for protectorate status under a Brazilian-led regional coalition, if one can be created that is willing to support a 10-year restoration initiative."
In an interview, Marcella said the efforts of U.N. peacekeepers and international aid agencies were helpful but insufficient. Neither has tackled such long-term goals as revitalizing schools, roads, hospitals and agriculture, he said.
The U.N. forces are responsible only for enhancing security. Their six-month mandate, which began in June and was recently extended for another six months, lacks any long-term strategic planning.
The protectorate idea, tantamount to foreign occupation, has ignited more enthusiasm among Haitian intellectuals than might have been expected in a year marking the bicentennial of the country's independence. Celebrations of the anniversary have been muted by catastrophic floods that killed at least 5,000, armed rebellion and repression.
"People are exasperated and exhausted. If you took a poll, 65 percent to 70 percent of the population would support a protectorate," said Claude Beauboeuf, a noted economist who compares Haiti today with Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban government.
Unguarded borders, a corrupt and overwhelmed police force and armed gangs eager to collaborate with well-heeled smugglers of guns and drugs could make this country a fertile ground for terrorists, Beauboeuf said.
"Haiti is not a strategic threat [to the United States] now," he said, "but we should not underestimate its potential to become one."
Politicians and historians note that one of the few periods of stability in Haiti stemmed from a 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, now fondly regarded by many here as an act of benevolence rather than imperialism.
"There is a strong nationalistic current in this country because of our history, but the bottom line is that people are more interested in better living conditions than in the abstract concept of sovereignty," said Michel Georges, a fruit exporter from the city of Cap Haitien who has joined a lively Internet debate among academics such as Marcella and editorialists in South Florida about prospects for bringing lasting peace to Haiti.
Caribbean political analysts such as Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, express doubt that the countries taking part in the U.N. mission would be enthusiastic about expanding their role.
Noting that the United States already is "resource restrained" in Iraq, Erikson said that responsibility for any U.N. protectorate in Haiti would fall to Latin American countries and that "Latin America as a whole tends to be a little bit uncomfortable with interventions."
However, Erikson agrees with protectorate advocates that recovery is unlikely unless the U.N. and Western powers engage in more hands-on efforts to repair the country's broken institutions and infrastructure.
At a donors' conference this month in Washington to discuss the disbursement of $1.2 billion in aid pledged to Haiti, it became obvious that "the international community doesn't feel it has anyone to give the money to" who would responsibly apply it to the country's aching needs, Erikson said.
Adama Guindo, head of the U.N. Development Program for Haiti, disagrees. He remains confident that the interim government headed by a former U.N. official, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, can steer the polarized population toward elections in November 2005 and put in place a legitimate leadership to take on the tasks of long-term reconstruction.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.