WASHINGTON - If it weren't for Iraq, official attention in Washington would probably be fixed on the Caribbean nation of Haiti, where a spreading insurrection against the government and persistent poverty threaten to cause a new exodus of "boat people" bound for Florida on leaky vessels.
Nine years after the United States disbanded a military junta and led an international force to restore democracy in Haiti, the hemisphere's second-oldest republic is in the grip of an armed uprising that has seized as many as 11 cities and left dozens of people dead.
This time, the United States is focusing much of its criticism on the man it restored to the presidency in 1994: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest who once mobilized Haiti's poorest citizens against dictatorship and the nation's wealthy elite.
Yesterday, the Bush administration stopped just short of calling on the president to give up power, although one official said that getting Aristide to step down voluntarily is no more than "a fantasy."
"We recognize that reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
Speaking on condition he not be named, a senior official was more blunt: "When we talk about undergoing change in the way Haiti is governed, I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide's position."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are keeping track of thousands of Americans in Haiti and watching warily for evidence of boat-building, a clear sign that the United States could be in for a revival of the mass immigration that occurred several times during the 1990s and at one point prompted the Clinton administration to set up a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Another State Department official said the Bush administration has a contingency plan to cope with mass migration in the Caribbean, where two Coast Guard cutters routinely patrol on the lookout for boat people and drug smugglers. A flood of Haitians moving toward the United States could roil Florida politics during an election year. So far, there are no signs that a surge of refugees is imminent, the official said.
Yet Haiti's humanitarian crisis persists. While aid keeps hundreds of thousands from starving, the nation "is on a collision course with declining food production and rapid deforestation," according to a recent article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs by Daniel Erikson of Inter-American Dialogue. Some areas show a resurgence of tuberculosis, U.S. officials said.
Officials trace the current unrest to the period after Aristide's first term expired in 1995, when he was constitutionally barred from succeeding himself. An Aristide protege, Rene Preval, assumed the presidency, but the former priest remained a power behind the scenes. Despite aid from the United States and other Western donors, government reforms stalled and Haiti slipped back into familiar patterns of corruption.
Aristide's Lavalas Party swept parliamentary elections in 2000, but fraud was so widespread that international donors froze aid. Aristide was elected to a new term later that year, but a low voter turnout indicated that many Haitians had given up on the democratic process.
Two years later, bank failures across Haiti deepened the nation's economic plight and triggered violent protests. Despite a resumption of foreign aid, a new wave of protests against Aristide broke out last fall.
Once a hero of Haiti's down-trodden, Aristide now faces violent street-level opposition, including from gangs that once backed him, and defections from the police forces he once controlled. The nation's military was disbanded in 1994.
Analysts say opposition political parties have not openly endorsed the armed insurgent groups, because they don't want to be seen to be part of the violent overthrow of an elected leader.
Despite intense diplomatic efforts by Caribbean nations, backed by the United States, opposition parties and Aristide have yet to talk about restoring order and carrying out the government reforms that are widely seen as necessary.
Although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was part of a team - with former President Jimmy Carter and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn - that persuaded the junta to give up power in 1994, he has opted not to play a direct role in the current crisis. The Bush administration is mostly preoccupied by terrorism, insurrection and continued political problems in Iraq.
Although the State Department appears to have lost patience with Aristide, he retains some political support in Washington. The liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, in a policy paper, accused the administration yesterday of having "grossly misused" the Haitian leader.
Within the political opposition, no single leader has presented himself as an alternative to Aristide, the U.S. official said.