Haiti's future uncertain on eve of Clinton visit

March 31, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton travels today to Haiti, site of his most conspicuous foreign policy success, for what was supposed to be a triumphant showcase of his abilities as a commander in chief and world leader.

Instead, the assassination this week of a lawyer critical of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has highlighted something else: that Haiti is still a land racked by political violence and the most extreme poverty in the Western Hemisphere -- a land with an uncertain future.

Mr. Clinton still is scheduled to meet the U.S. troops stationed in Haiti, still scheduled to speak to the Haitian people from the steps of the National Palace, still scheduled to meet privately with Mr. Aristide and members of the government that the United States helped restore to power.

But now, one of the issues for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Aristide is whether the Haitian government was involved in the murder of the dissident lawyer, Mireille Durocher Bertin.

A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the U.S. military had learned of a conspiracy against Ms. Bertin, an outspoken critic of Mr. Aristide. But this fact only adds to the potential embarrassment.

U.S. officials shared information about the plot with the Aristide government, which offered to protect Ms. Bertin. Apparently fearing that the government was involved in the plot, she refused the offer, one White House official said.

She and a passenger were shot to death Tuesday in a car on a Port-au-Prince street.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry, traveling in Florida, said that the FBI will assist in the investigation of the killings. He confirmed news reports that three people arrested on suspicion of being involved have alleged that there was a larger conspiracy to kill her.

According to those reports, the plotters included a member of Mr. Aristide's Cabinet, Interior Minister Mondesir Beaubrun, an assertion on which Mr. McCurry would not comment.

As recently as Monday, Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger told reporters at the White House that an increase in Haitian homicides was due to "common criminals" and that it did not involve acts of political terror or retribution.

Yesterday, Mr. McCurry and Clinton administration officials stressed that Haiti was a far more violent place before American troops landed there Sept. 19 than it is now.

Mr. Berger and others have argued that anyone who assumed that the distressed nation would repair itself in 6 1/2 months was expecting miracles. The nation's poverty, Mr. Berger said, is two centuries old. And in those 200 years, he said, far more Haitian leaders have been murdered or forcibly exiled than turned over power peacefully.

"Up until very recently, political violence there was the norm," said National Security Council official Calvin Mitchell, who went to Haiti yesterday to prepare for Mr. Clinton's arrival. "It was part of the way of governing."

This was precisely one of the reasons that critics cited for the

TC United States not getting involved in Haiti in the first place.

"I was one of those people who didn't think we should intervene," said Thomas Carothers, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "America signed on to a very big commitment it's not sure it wants. And if things go wrong, fingers will be pointed at the United States."

Despite the events of this week, however, Mr. Clinton's decision to intercede has so far stood up to scrutiny. Mr. Aristide is still in power, and a fragile constitutional democracy appears to be taking root.

The decision to force out Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his fellow military leaders improved Mr. Clinton's standing in audiences as disparate as black voters in the United States and the diplomatic corps in foreign capitals. The president has wanted to visit the troops he committed to Haiti -- and not solely because it makes for good pictures back home.

"Presidents really agonize over these decisions. And after they are over, they want some closure," said Mr. Carothers. "President Reagan went to Grenada, and President Bush to Panama and Kuwait."

In Mr. Clinton's case, even more may be at stake.

Last year, when American gunships, planes and paratroopers -- coupled with last-minute U.S. diplomacy -- clipped the wings of Haiti's brutal military junta, Mr. Clinton did more than restore to power the popularly elected Mr. Aristide. He supplied a concrete rebuttal to critics who said that he was a disinterested commander in chief and an uncertain leader in foreign affairs.

"The president risked a lot of political capital on Haiti, and at a time the political climate among both Democrats and Republicans was, 'Don't do it,' " recalled Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who headed the Congressional Black Caucus at the time of the invasion and pressured the president to act on behalf of the Aristide government-in-exile.

"They had written off Haiti," added Mr. Mfume, who will be joining Mr. Clinton in Port-au-Prince. "But President Clinton didn't. He made a tough decision, stuck to it, and -- so far, at least -- it's been a success."

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