Haitians, Hopeful, Building Boats In Anticipation of Clinton Welcome

January 17, 1993|By BEN BARBER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Port-au-Prince, Haiti.--As Sauver Christian hammers galvanized spikes into the frame of a 42-foot sailboat on the beach at Leogane, an hour's drive south of the capital, he's focused on the inauguration of Bill Clinton in Washington. Like most Haitians he expects Mr. Clinton will reverse the U.S. policy of turning back boats filled with refugees and, instead, allow them to land in Florida.

And he hopes Mr. Clinton will help the widely-loved, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide return to power in Haiti. "Under Aristide we were free to talk, to live like men," the white-haired carpenter said with a wistful smile. "Now they can beat us, we can't say anything." He crossed his wrists in the universal sign of captivity.

Mr. Clinton said Thursday he is "profoundly moved by the dangers involved" and cited recent reports that 400 Haitians may have already drowned at sea, in part, because they believed the president-elect's campaign promise to change U.S. policies toward Haitian boat people. But he said he would continue the policy of returning them home.

He and President Aristide urged Haitians to remain at home while efforts are made for a political solution to the crisis. These could include U.N. observers to monitor human rights; protection for boat people returned to Haiti; easier application procedures for political asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti; and an agreement by the military to recognize Mr. Aristide as president if he drops demands for their punishment. But it's unclear if these policies and plans will deter the wave of people ready to set sail.

Boat-builder Christian (his name is changed to protect him) and many others, including diplomats and Haitian journalists, expect the start of the Clinton term to launch an armada of boats filled with Haitians seeking to enter the United States.

"I think tens of thousands are ready to go," said a source with the Organization of American States delegation here. "It will start with a few boats," each laden with up to 200 or 300 people. If they are able to reach Florida, then the rest will put to sea.

The OAS official said 1,200 boats are under construction -- double the normal winter production -- in the hope that the United States will stop turning back refugee boats.

President Aristide, in an interview in Washington last month, said that the exodus would rival the 125,000 Cubans who reached Florida in a few weeks in the 1981 Mariel boat-lift.

That boat-lift paralyzed South Florida and spilled over into riots among Cubans detained in Arkansas -- riots some say they led to then-Governor Clinton's electoral defeat. The Clinton transition team is reportedly now struggling to find a solution to the Haitian problem before it spills over into a tragedy at sea (from five to 50 percent of boat people drown, said a Coast Guard source), an immigration tidal wave on shore, an anti-immigration backlash in Florida and an international humiliation.

Mr. Christian and other Haitians have prayed for Mr. Clinton's victory and hold a quasi-religious belief that he will bring back Mr. Aristide and improve their lives. This is because Mr. Clinton said several times during the campaign that the Bush administration policy of returning all boat people to Haiti is wrong.

Refugee advocates, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have strongly criticized the U.S. decision in May 1991 to halt all screening to identify political refugees and simply ship all boat people to Port-au-Prince. The change in policy came after 40,000 Haitians were intercepted en route to the U.S. and hundreds more were setting forth each week.

The wave of boat people followed the coup in September 1991 in which the military, backed by the tiny mulatto elite, ousted the popular Mr. Aristide after seven months in office as Haiti's first freely elected president. The New York-based human rights group Americas Watch says that since the coup over 1,500 people have been killed in a wave of repression against supporters of Mr. Aristide.

Father Antione Adrien, who represents President Aristide in Haiti, said in an interview here that the number killed since the coup is probably three times higher than the 1,500 bodies counted by human rights workers because little information about murders is coming from the rural areas where 80 percent of Haiti's seven million people live.

He said that 30 bodies were found in the capital's streets in December, marking an intensification of the purges.

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