Haiti on the front burner

January 19, 1993|By EDITORIAL

President-elect Clinton, in the run-up to his inauguratio tomorrow, did more last week than renege on a campaign promise to allow Haitians who reach these shores to plead for political asylum. He substituted a new promise, calling the blockade of Haiti by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard "a policy for this moment," that "should be changed" -- even though he accepted it to avert a crisis of his own making. Wanting Haitians to remain voluntarily in their country, he has implied still another promise, the restoration of the constitutionally elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The blockade by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels is a strange, unprecedented and probably illegal business. The U.S. has taken on the role of scooping scared people out of boats on the high seas and dumping them back in their homeland. They do not get a chance to prove themselves targets of government retribution deserving political asylum. A Coast Guard commander cannot know that a boat leaving Haitian waters with too many people is attempting the treacherous 600-mile journey to Florida. Were it heading for nearby Cuba or the Bahamas, which is theoretically possible, that would not be the U.S. government's business.

The blockade imposed by the Bush administration in cooperation with the Clinton transition team is at best a stopgap, to forestall a rumored flood of refugees headed on Inauguration Day to a storm-battered southern Florida unable to cope with them. What is needed to keep the refugees home would be a realistic hope for restoration of constitutional law and an end to military brutalities against dissidents.

The agreement for a large United Nations observer team that U.N. official Dante Caputo won from Haiti's strong man, Lt. Gen Raoul Cedras, is encouraging for the prospect of human rights and U.N.-brokered political talks. But the parliamentary election held by the military yesterday and boycotted by the opposition is discouraging, an attempt to legitimize the army's 1991 ouster of President Aristide. The results are not valid.

Haiti is not the greatest foreign crisis facing the incoming administration, but it is the one closest to U.S. shores. The Clinton team needs to hit the ground running on this one, with greater commitment than the Bush administration demonstrated to the restoration of President Aristide. For his part, the young populist priest-politician needs a credible posture of reconciliation, not revenge. Political serenity in Haiti is the necessary prerequisite to economic revival, which is the only long-term guarantee against further tidal waves of refugees rolling up on U.S. shores.

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