Haiti's Problem, and Ours

November 28, 1991

If the Haitian crisis is solved soon, the camps for boat people thrown up at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, eastern Cuba, may suffice. Otherwise, the Immigration and Naturalization Service must rethink its opinion that desperate Haitians washed up on our shores are not political refugees.

The inhospitable view toward immigrants taken lately by Washington is not uniquely targeted at Haitians. This country is also not taking Jews from the Soviet Union or Vietnamese boat people or the flood of Eastern Europeans cut loose by recent events, on the same ground that they are mere economic refugees. There are exceptions, of course, but these exceptions also include Haitians.

So far, the Haitian boat people are not in large numbers, a few thousand who could be dispersed in the great American cities where Haitian communities already exist. It is the recession that makes this nation so inhospitable. Homeless Americans are all too visible in those same cities.

The Haitians are fleeing violence, poverty and impending disorder. Many of them must be considered economic refugees -- from the sanctions imposed by the United States and Organization of American States. The army that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide clearly counts on that to induce Washington to relent on its opposition to the holding of new elections.

It is not just American sensibilities that bar this, however. The newly democratic regimes that dominate OAS thinking want to establish the unacceptability of coups and the primacy of constitutional process. It is too bad that Mr. Aristide and the Haitian parliamentarians who met in Cartagena, Colombia, did not come to terms. Mr. Aristide may have faults, he may have provoked the alarm of many Haitians, but only he is the constitutional president. He should be willing to make guarantees of pluralism and safety, to a greater extent than he has, but only he is the legitimate government.

The likelihood is that Haiti's crisis will not quickly dissolve. Not unless the U.S. gives into the Haitian army on a new president, which Washington should not do. That being the case, desperate people will continue to embark from Haiti's shore in anything that floats and much that doesn't. The U.S. does not have enough Coast Guard cutters to house them all at sea. When Guantanamo fills up, the only humanitarian option will be for the U.S. government -- which condemns Hong Kong for shipping refugees back to Vietnam -- to allow more Haitian refugees into this country.

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