Clinton to keep door shut on Haiti, despite pledge He reverses plan to ease entry

January 15, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton said yesterday he will keep the door closed for the time being on Haitian refugees, a foreign policy reversal that follows retreats on promises to cut taxes on the middle class and halve the deficit in four years.

At a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., yesterday, Mr. Clinton defended himself against the charge of breaking campaign promises even before he has been sworn in, saying voters would judge him "foolish" if he did not adapt his policies to new conditions.

"I think it would be irresponsible for a president of the United States to never respond to changing circumstance," he said.

Before the news conference, Mr. Clinton's aides made the announcement that he would continue the Bush policy of stopping Haitian boat people at sea and returning them to Haiti, a policy he criticized during the campaign.

During the campaign, he promised fair immigration hearings to Haitians attempting to settle in the U.S. This produced a flurry of anticipation in Haiti and the prospect of tens of thousands of Haitians setting sail for Florida expecting a more sympathetic reception after Mr. Clinton's inauguration.

In a desperate, last-minute effort to forestall this exodus, Mr. Clinton reversed his position, saying he was "profoundly moved" by the plight of the Haitians and did not want to do anything to increase the danger of their "perilous" voyage to the United States. He pledged to press for a return to democracy for the island nation and promised that the facilities for immigration hearings in Haiti would be increased.

He described his adoption of high-seas interdiction as "a policy for this moment," adding: "I still believe the policy should be changed. We are changing it. It should be changed more, but I don't think we should do it on a dime on January 20 [inauguration day]."

Larry Birns of the labor-backed Council on Hemispheric Affairs said Mr. Clinton's "real error" was to fail immediately after his election victory to formulate a coherent policy to prevent a mass sailing of Haitians which could rival the 1980 Mariel boat lift which brought 125,000 non-documented Cubans here.

The policy, said Mr. Birns, should have committed the U.S. to the restoration of democracy in Haiti and the return of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown in a 1991 military coup.

The restoration would be under the protection of an international peace force of troops from the member nations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, he said.

At his news conference yesterday, Mr. Clinton also reinforced his earlier retreat from a middle-class tax cut, saying that he won voter support for the "big things" -- economic stimulation, deficit reduction and health-care reform.

He accused the press of making a middle-class tax cut "the most important issue" of his campaign, and said he had not found similar interest among voters. But he continued to describe himself as an advocate for "tax fairness." Part of his rationale for a middle-class tax cut was that if would offset the tax breaks given to the wealthy by the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The country's "No. 1" problem, Mr. Clinton said, was low growth, which meant, "We need an investment policy."

Though he has backed away from his pledge to halve the deficit in four years, Mr. Clinton reiterated his resolve to "deal with the long-term debt." Without health-care reform there could be no long-term growth or deficit reduction, he warned.

Mr. Clinton denied that preparation of his economic package was behind schedule, and said it would be completed "in the near future" and presented in his State of the Union address, with legislation to follow "not long after I take office."

A joint survey, by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas, released yesterday, showed Mr. Clinton enjoying an 84 percent "honeymoon" approval rating, but 58 percent of those questioned perceived him as backing away from his campaign promises.

But Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in government studies at the liberal Brookings Institution, said Mr. Clinton's assessment of where he needs to focus his efforts "is absolutely right."

"The three big issues would be growth, the deficit and health care. . . . He didn't make them out of whole cloth," Mr. Hess said.

"It is an interesting question as to why is the press, before he has even taken office, spending all this time on whether he is going to honor his commitments. It seems to me the shortest honeymoon with the press ever. . . ."

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