Haitian hopes ride high with incoming Clinton administration

January 06, 1993|By Pamela Constable | Pamela Constable,Boston Globe

CA-IRA, Haiti -- Under the skeleton of a half-buil mangrove-wood boat hull, a cluster of lanky young men gathered on this village beach last week. They spoke of their hopes for deliverance from oppression and poverty by the incoming government in Washington and of their plans for escape if it fails to come.

"When Mr. [Bill] Clinton was elected, we all wanted to celebrate, but no one dared say his name," said Guynore, 22, a carpenter. "If he brings back our president, we will eat leaves and grass without complaint. But if he does nothing, we will all be gone from here, every single one."

It is impossible to confirm dire U.S. government reports that more than 700 boats are being built along Haitian coasts in anticipation of Mr. Clinton's arrival in the White House.

But there is no doubt that for Haiti's poor masses, most of whom voted for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Mr. Clinton's recent pledges to support democracy abroad and to soften President Bush's policies toward Haitian refugees have aroused intense hope and speculation.

For political leaders in both countries, the specter of a new wave of impoverished "boat people" has become a potent wild card in the battle of bluff, threats and maneuvers between the exiled president and Haiti's military rulers.

Mr. Aristide and his supporters hope Mr. Clinton will take an energetic, principled stand in favor of restoring him to power. If not, they believe U.S. fears of a new refugee tide that could exceed the exodus of 40,000 boat people, following the coup, could produce the same results.

Haiti's current government, headed by Prime Minister Marc Bazin, hopes the threat of a refugee tide will have the opposite impact and that the new U.S. administration will push Mr. Aristide to make major concessions, such as accepting the presidency in name while delaying his return indefinitely.

"The boat people are the $64 million question," said Lionel dela Tour, an independent analyst. "If the crisis is not resolved by the end of January and people start leaving by the thousands, it will be a red flag going up."

The regime and its lobbyists are working hard to convince Americans close to Mr. Clinton that the return of Mr. Aristide would provoke mass violence. They argue that Mr. Bazin represents the best hope for stability and democracy building, with Mr. Aristide as the titular head of state in exile.

Under Mr. Bush's policy, all refugees caught at sea are returned to Haiti. Despite constant reports of military repression, the Bush administration argues that most Haitian boat people are economic migrants who cannot prove that they are victims of persecution. More than 15,000 people applied for asylum here last year, but only 7 percent of the applications were accepted.

Even if the Clinton administration finds a humane but practical way to manage the expected refugee flow, observers agreed the problem will not go away until a permament solution is found to Haiti's political crisis. But there, too, Mr. Clinton's options may prove no more palatable than those faced by Mr. Bush.

For more than a year, Mr. Aristide and his opponents have blamed each other for refusing to negotiate, while clinging to mutually intolerable demands. The OAS embargo has done little good, and few governments would support forceful foreign intervention.

Some analysts said that only stepped-up involvement by the United Nations would make a difference now. In December, U.N. officials sent a special envoy here for discussions, but with peace-keeping missions deployed in a dozen war-torn countries, Haiti remains near the bottom of U.N. priorities.

So for many poor Haitians who cannot read but devour daily Voice of America broadcasts in Creole, the increasing focus of hope is on the White House and the man who is about to inherit its heavy mantle of hemispheric influence.

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