WASHINGTON -- The United States made restoration of Haiti's elected government into a rallying cry yesterday, driven less by the latest turn in that nation's history of misery than by the first reversal in a pro-democracy trend throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Along with the European Community, France and Canada, the United States announced that it was suspending all aid to Haiti and would not recognize the three-man junta led by the army commander, Brig. Gen. Raoul Cedras, who sent President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile early yesterday.
"We condemn those who have attacked the legally constituted, democratically elected government of Haiti, and call for an immediate halt to violence and the restoration of democracy in Haiti," President Bush said in a statement after showing support for Father Aristide by accepting the diplomatic credentials of his ambassador, Jean Casimir. The State Department called the coup "outrageous."
Secretary of State James A. Baker III was considering joining other foreign ministers from the Organization of American States at a meeting, expected today, to discuss further action -- possibly sanctions. Father Aristide has accepted an OAS invitation to attend.
U.S. and Latin American governments saw the coup as more than another setback for the Haitian people, who, one U.S. official observed, "have been visited by one tragedy after another, including some of their own making."
Rather, it marked the first reversal of a trend in which all states in the hemisphere except for Cuba have at least a plausible democracy, a point frequently repeated by top U.S. officials. "As such, we're going to play this one quite tough," predicted a Democratic congressional expert on the region. "My impression is they're going to use all non-violent means at their disposal."
The principle of backing democracy outweighed attitudes toward Father Aristide himself, who was seen by some as having stirred up the military and bourgeoisie by exploiting mob violence. "Aristide is no democrat," one said. Another saw restoration of constitutional government, without Father Aristide, as the likely outcome.
The total aid cutoff marked a shift from past reactions to political turbulence in Haiti, when food and other humanitarian aid was maintained.
"This is something that we feel strongly about," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, adding later that if food shortages developed, "we'll deal with that when that happens." The suspended aid programs amounted to more than $90 million from the United States, $36 million from France and $8.8 million from Canada.
The U.S. stand came in the face of assertions by the Washington Office on Haiti, a lobbying group here, that the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince may not have done all it could to prevent the coup.
Worth Cooley-Prost, president of the office's board of directors, said that it had heard from both Haitians and Americans in Port-au-Prince who complained that the "apparent inaction by U.S. and other embassies in the early hours of the coup served as a green light to the military to move forward with the coup."
U.S. officials rejected the charge, and the State Department said there was "no foundation whatsoever" to any suggestion that its embassy knew in advance of the coup.
The Democratic congressional aide said that Washington observers had picked up indications of a possible coup as early as last Friday by reading the Haitian press.
The United States had early misgivings about Father Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest once given to fiery rhetoric against the U.S. government and foreign businesses.
But Father Aristide has developed what by all accounts is a good working relationship with U.S. Ambassador Alvin Adams, who joined in negotiations involving the junta that allowed the president to escape with his life.
Seeking to make Haiti more credible to international lending organizations, he moved to raise tax and tariff collection, streamline the government and cut its deficit. His actions boosted Haiti's prospects of foreign aid at the risk of raising public discontent.