U.S. policy on Haiti likely to shift soon

April 16, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- From Capitol Hill to Hollywood, pressure is mounting on President Clinton to change a policy on Haiti that tears at his political support.

As the island nation's military rulers crack down on their impoverished opponents, Haiti now rivals Bosnia as a cause that fires the liberal conscience. It has led many black members of Congress, as well as entertainers ranging from Harry Belafonte to Robert De Niro, to criticize a president who is their natural ally.

In full-page newspaper ads, talk shows and one well-publicized hunger strike, critics demand that the United States take tougher action to restore the elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a military coup, and end Washington's "racist" forced return of Haitian refugees.

This pressure, plus worsening violence on the island, has spurred Mr. Clinton to seek new ways to fulfill his commitment to restore democracy and keep a flood of Haitian refugees from undertaking perilous boats journeys toward Florida.

At a meeting with top advisers yesterday, Mr. Clinton discussed seeking a worldwide commercial embargo against Haiti and a freeze of assets held around the world by that country's top military leaders and their supporters. No decision was made, a senior policy-maker said, but a policy shift is expected soon.

"It's clear that the situation is getting worse on the island," the official said. "The level of human rights abuse and violence is increasing."

The United Nations has imposed an embargo only on arms and fuel. The United States separately has frozen assets belonging to prominent Haitians linked to the military leadership.

Other officials have said the administration would ease the process by which Haitians are considered for political asylum. Currently, the United States has three centers in different parts of Haiti to process applicants.

The administration also has tried to get the Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti, to better police its border to prevent the large-scale violations of the U.N. fuel embargo. A full U.S. commercial embargo, excepting food and medicine, is called for in legislation before Congress.

But the Congressional Black Caucus and many activists may not be satisfied unless the administration also abandons the Coast Guard's policy of returning boat people to Haiti, where some have been arrested and, some fear, beaten or killed.

While the administration insists that most refugees flee Haiti for economic reasons and thus are not entitled to political asylum, critics say the policy effectively consigns many to death.

Human rights groups say fatal attacks against Aristide supporters are mounting, particularly by a paramilitary group presided over by Michel Francois, police chief of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Opposition of the forced repatriation gained strength this week when social activist Randall Robinson began a hunger strike that he said would last until the policy was changed.

Articulate and well-connected, Mr. Robinson played a leading role in persuading Congress to impose sanctions on South Africa, contributing to the eventual end of apartheid.

Father Aristide earlier joined opponents of the repatriation policy, formally canceling a U.S.-Haiti treaty that formed part of the legal underpinning for the policy of picking up Haitians on the seas.

A few administration critics want U.S. military action to oust the military government, although there is no sign that the administration is actively considering it. This would likely be opposed by some Latin American countries that have bitter memories of armed U.S. interventions.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis, who chairs the Appropriations Committee and who rarely backs military intervention, called Thursday for an invasion to restore order. This should be followed by new elections, which he predicted would return Father Aristide to power, and a long-term peacekeeping operation.

An aide said yesterday that Mr. Obey is frustrated that the United States has gotten into a position where "policy is determined by what others do."

Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn, who has lived in Haiti, also favors military action.

Father Aristide himself doesn't flatly endorse such a move, saying the Haitian constitution forbids a call for intervention. But a key adviser, former Rep. Michael Barnes of Maryland, said the Haitian president has said that "the people of Haiti would be grateful to be rescued from the terror in which they find themselves."

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