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Clinton and Haiti

January 19, 1993



BILL CLINTON'S decision to continue current policy regarding Haitian boat people should accomplish its immediate goal of deterring a flood of refugees. At the same time, it directly contradicts his campaign promise to junk that policy.

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Candidate Clinton pointed out, correctly, that a policy of interdiction and forced return violated international law, which requires that people seeking asylum not be forcibly returned to their homeland before any determination is made of their claim.

It may be true, as President Bush said in setting the policy of interdiction and return, that most Haitians are fleeing economic disaster, not political persecution. But that line is difficult to draw in Haiti, and few doubt that many Haitians are terrorized by local thugs and political bosses.

Clinton had to act. His earlier, unqualified promise set Haitians, whose country is in economic and political collapse, at work building the wooden craft needed for an attempted passage to Florida. A mass outflow would be a disaster both for the boat people, many of whom might be lost at sea, and for authorities in Florida, who would have to deal with the new arrivals.

In announcing that forced return would continue, the president-elect also called for stronger efforts to resolve Haiti's ongoing political crisis. He has been in touch with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected president of Haiti in late 1990 and was soon ousted by the country's military. In a radio broadcast, Father Aristide last week counseled his people to stay put and work for a restoration of legitimate government in Haiti. It is far from clear they will take that advice. It is equally unclear jus t how and when Aristide will reclaim his office. But with renewed talks, the outlook for a political solution in Haiti is at least marginally brighter.

Any political steps forward should be accompanied by a progressive lifting of the trade embargo imposed when Aristide was overthrown. The embargo has only exacerbated Haiti's poverty and increased incentives to flee.

Meanwhile, Clinton should make it clear that his retention of the Bush policy is a short-term compromise. Less-drastic options are available. He could call for the establishment of safe havens for fleeing Haitians at the US base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or at other locations in the region. If it were made clear that such havens will not offer screening for asylum in the US, but simply be a place to protect those fleeing out of fear, economic migrants might still be deterred. And the new administration w ould avoid perpetuating a policy that risks forcing people back into dangerous situations.