Haiti replaces S. Africa as liberal cause

June 13, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Growing up, Taylor Branch was like most other whites in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s hometown of Atlanta. He never saw the civil rights leader or really grasped what sort of power Dr. King possessed.

Today, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian seems determined to atone for that youthful oversight. He has become, in his words, "a little private lobbyist," albeit an unpaid one, for the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled president of Haiti.

In doing so, Mr. Branch has joined a growing number of liberal whites -- including prominent politicians, intellectuals, labor union leaders and celebrities from the entertainment world -- who are changing the face of the movement that is pushing for Father Aristide's return to office.

"They represent a small constituency, really, but they're very vocal. And they know how to get their word out on Capitol Hill," says Lawrence A. Pezzullo, who served as U.S. special envoy for Haiti until six weeks ago, when he was forced to resign as part of an administration policy shift.

Until relatively recently, critics of U.S. policy toward Haiti were almost exclusively African-Americans, led by the congressional Black Caucus and including such activists as TransAfrica's Randall Robinson.

Liberal community incensed

"For a long time, it was 90 percent black, 10 percent white. Now, it's 50-50," said Michael D. Barnes, the former Maryland congressman who is a paid adviser to Father Aristide. "The liberal community is really worked up on this thing."

The list of leading Aristide supporters in Congress includes two liberal Democratic senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

In the House, his backers include: David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee; Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, chairman of the congressional Black Caucus; and two other liberal Democrats, James L. Oberstar of Minnesota and Charles B. Rangel of New York.

Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts has lent the magic of his family's name to the cause.

"It's becoming more and more a civil rights issue, and as it does, the traditional civil rights coalition is again falling into place," said Henry Berger, chairman of Americans for Democratic Action.

Another factor: the successful transition to black majority rule in South Africa, which has freed up liberal energies for new causes.

"South Africa was so important for so long, and suddenly it's not there any more," Mr. Berger said.

It is difficult to measure the impact of the broadened pro-Aristide coalition. But there's no question that it has given the Aristide cause important new access to the president and his advisers.

Jonathan Demme, the film director who made "Silence of the Lambs," was able to lobby the president in Mr. Clinton's own house, handing him a letter and urging him to do more to remove the military dictators who overthrew Father Aristide in September 1991.

White House encounter

The encounter took place in November in the White House screening room, after Mr. Demme had shown the president his latest movie, "Philadelphia."

Mr. Demme is founder of Artists for Democracy in Haiti, whose membership of more than 200 includes the film stars Susan Sarandon, Laura Dern and Danny Glover.

Some of the same entertainers who played key supporting roles in the civil rights movement are active on Haiti, especially singer Harry Belafonte, but also Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

The Demme group has tried to generate public concern by sponsoring newspaper ads critical of the administration's policy and by placing celebrities on TV shows, such as a recent "Donahue" program on Haiti that triggered a surge of protest calls to the White House from viewers.

This spring, Mr. Demme and his co-producer, Edward Saxon, were part of a group of liberal activists who spent about two hours at the White House being briefed on the administration's policy by a key Clinton aide, Richard E. Feinberg, the National Security Council official with responsibility for Haiti.

"When you get into meetings with these people and start having a dialogue, and they know that you know whereof you speak, then you're taken seriously," said Mr. Saxon.

Civil rights parallel

It was through Mr. Demme, who is making the film version of Mr. Branch's award-winning book, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," that the writer first met Father Aristide. Mr. Branch sees strong parallels between the U.S. civil rights movement and the situation in all-black Haiti.

In Mr. Branch's view, President Clinton's choices on Haiti are very similar to the ones that President John F. Kennedy faced in the early 1960s over the movement to grant black Americans common citizenship.

Back then, suggestions that Dr. King might have Communist connections became an excuse for Kennedy to avoid sending a civil rights bill to Congress, he noted.

In much the same way, Mr. Clinton has been urged by many of his advisers to avoid deeper involvement with Father Aristide, whose critics portray him as unstable.

What Mr. Clinton needs to do, Mr. Branch contends, is "take a risk on principle" and use American military power, if necessary, to put Father Aristide back in power.

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