Clinton's Haiti ball has lost its bounce it's time to act

May 13, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Woody Marc Edouard, a Haitian, forced a plane to fly from Haiti to Miami last year.

Upon arrival, Edouard asked for asylum, but instead was arrested and is now in prison awaiting trial on charges of air piracy.

Last Sunday, Basilio Garcia-Breto, a Cuban pilot, diverted a plane from Cuba to Miami.

Upon arrival, he was not arrested, but instead held a news conference, was released into the custody of relatives and a few days ago was honored with a parade. His request for political asylum is now being processed.

Why the difference in treatment?

Since Cubans live under a Communist regime, we pretend that anyone who wants to leave Cuba wants to do so to escape communism. So we welcome them.

Since Haitians live under a military regime, we pretend that 95 percent of them want to leave not for political reasons but for economic reasons, and so we send them back or lock them up.

Does this make sense to you?

It didn't to Bill Clinton when he was a candidate for president. "I was 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," candidate Clinton said.

This played well with America's African-American community, who had long complained that Cubans, most of whom are of Latino ancestry, were welcomed to our shores while Haitians, most of whom are of African ancestry, were not.

But as soon as Clinton took office, he found that he was not so appalled by Bush's Haitian policy after all. So he continued it.

Why? Because Florida, one of the mega-states whose 25 electoral votes will be very important to Clinton in 1996, is worried about being inundated by fleeing Haitians.

So Clinton came up with a better idea: Keep the Haitians in Haiti by making Haiti a better place to live.

This is not a bad idea, but it has proven much tougher to implement than Clinton had expected. Clinton has been unable to secure the return of deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, was in office for less than 10 months before he was ousted in a military coup. But during those 10 months the number of people fleeing Haiti dropped significantly, which tends to disprove the theory that Haitians are leaving for economic and not political reasons.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court said Clinton was acting legally in returning Haitian refugees to Haiti without giving them a hearing, but this only served as a spur to more black protest in this country.

And when Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, began receiving a lot of national attention for his hunger strike over Clinton's Haitian policy, it was clear the White House had to act.

So the question was how to satisfy black leaders and still not anger Floridians. The answer: process Haitian refugees on U.S. ships and in foreign countries.

This was enough to get Robinson to end his fast, which was a huge relief to the White House.

But how serious is the Clinton plan?

George Bush tried processing Haitians on board Coast Guard ships and abandoned it as ineffective. Clinton is now exploring the idea of renting a cruise ship for the purpose, but nothing has been lined up.

And what foreign countries want to welcome hordes of fleeing Haitians for us?

Well, as of Wednesday, we still do not know.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers was asked if the United States had bothered to talk to any foreign countries before making the pledge.

"No," Myers replied.

L So these countries were hearing about it for the first time?

"Right," Myers replied.

No matter. Presumably the United States will find some country somewhere, just as it will find some ship somewhere.

And no matter that Clinton's new policy is not expected to allow many more Haitians into America than before: about 5 percent of those who apply.

Because until Clinton commits to a policy that actually restores democracy to Haiti -- such as the use of American troops, possibly as part of a U.N. or OAS invasion force -- his policy toward Haiti will have less to do with Haitian refugees than it has to do with American voters.

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