Pretty words on Haiti

March 24, 1994|By Bob Herbert

WITH MOST people, and especially with politicians, it is more instructive to watch the things they do than listen to what they say. And so it is with President Clinton and the extreme split between his high-toned rhetoric and his administration's shameful behavior regarding Haiti.

Mr. Clinton has been unwavering in his spoken support for the

restoration of democracy in Haiti and the return to power of its ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In a radio broacast to Haiti in January 1993, Mr. Clinton, then president-elect, said: "Several years ago, I saw personally the beauty of your land. I felt the warmth of your people and ever since then I have wanted you to have freedom and democracy and economic opportunity."

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton repeatedly attacked the Bush administration's Haitian refugee policy, saying at one point, "I am appalled by the decision of the Bush administration to pick up fleeing Haitians on the high seas and forcibly return them to Haiti before considering their claim to political asylum."

Mr. Clinton is a master of the correct thing to say in any given situation. But all you need is a glimpse of the net thrown around Haiti by the Coast Guard to capture -- and return -- fleeing refugees to realize that the president's actions can be something else again.

This lesson has been hammered repeatedly into the head of Mr. Aristide. The treatment he has received from his "friends" in the United States seems very peculiar when you consider that he and the democracy that he represents are the clear victims in this saga, and that the murderous thugs who ousted him in a coup in September 1991 are villains devoid of any redeeming value.

The Clinton administration has tried to impose on Mr. Aristide a series of proposed "settlements" that, if carried out, would have meant at best that he would return to Haiti as president in name only, unable to govern effectively, and at worst that he would be placed in imminent danger of being murdered.

The latest of these is a ludicrous plan, dreamed up by the State Department, that would virtually assure the coup leaders amnesty and a strong voice in the formation of a new government, and doesn't even bother to set a target date for Mr. Aristide's return.

Mr. Aristide has quite sensibly rejected such proposals. For that he he has been labeled intransigent and treated increasingly shabbily by the administration.

No matter that he upheld his end of last year's Governors Island accord, and that the coup leaders treated the accord the way a scofflaw treats a parking ticket. Mr. Aristide may have won a free and fair election in Haiti, but to the political sophisticates in the upper echelons of the government in Washington he is a boor and a nuisance.

The administration, in conjunction with the United Nations, has also imposed an embargo on Haiti that has substantially increased the suffering of the Haitian people and is so riddled with loopholes it has not come close to bringing the junta to its knees.

And a commercial embargo imposed by the United States was carefully crafted to exclude assembly plants, which are used by companies outside Haiti to assemble goods in Haiti (with cheap Haitian labor) for export elsewhere. U.S. trade with Haiti increased in 1993.

Meanwhile, the atrocities committed by the police and the military against the Haitian population continue. Thousands of civilians have been killed, tens of thousands are in hiding.

Human rights organizations report that the Haitian police -- and armed civilians allied with them -- are raping women with impunity as part of their country-wide campaign of terror.

Eventually even the prettiest of words can lose their meaning in the cold light of reality. While President Clinton says nice things about them, the Haitians are being destroyed.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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