Clinton's Challenge In Helping Haiti

EVEN President Clinton cannot easily craft a winning policy in Haiti. His attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable was noble, but it only bought time.

The ruling Haitian military junta agreed before Inauguration Day to cooperate with Mr. Clinton and the United Nations. It promised to admit 500 UN human rights observers but reneged.

Clinton's inaugural celebrations were bedeviled by fears of a renewed exodus of boat people from Haiti, by an interim political compromise that came unstuck, and by fears that there might be no good answer to the Haitian dilemma short of another intervention. Clinton's hard task is to encourage progressive politics in a country that has never known more than a few months of democracy since its independence in 1804. There is no tradition of political give and take, no value system enshrining tolerance or dissent. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the overwhelming popular favorite when he was elected fairly in 1990. His radicalism and belief in a kind of communalistic empowerment of the masses threatened the positions of the military, the police, and significant elements of the business elite. Haiti had been run for decades, if not two centuries, as a series of tightly controlled syndicates.

Because of President Aristide's ideas and the belief that he was cruel and potentially corrupt, the military overthrow of his regime in late 1991 was popular among Haiti's business classes. The subsequent Organization of American States (OAS) and United States boycott was meant to undo the coup, but all it accomplished was the further decay of an already imperiled economy, halting commerce and shipping Haitians to sea in small boats.

The renewed building of small boats is Clinton's immediate worry. No one wants Haitians to flee, yet die at sea. Nor is Clinton as ready as he should be to receive Haitians in the US as openly as Cubans. Given his campaign statements, his recent embrace of pragmatism appears as cynical and inhumane as it does sensible.

THE 1991 boycott was an appropriate response to the coup. But it did not work. The ruling junta was and is interested in survival, not in the welfare of Haitians. Its livelihood was largely unaffected; the drug trade continued and leaders of the junta took their percentage. Every time the Bush administration cut a deal with Aristide, the junta refused to accept it, however reasonable. Aristide also refused to accept a nominal presidential return or an amnesty for the men of the junta.

Clinton believed two weeks ago that he has the beginnings of a compromise. Aristide may still be agreeing to a resumption of his presidency without insisting on returning physically to Haiti. He appeared to offer some kind of amnesty to the military. The junta and Aristide's men may jointly accept a new prime minister.

A new government may help. It may be possible for the US and the OAS to lift the boycott in exchange for the junta's final acceptance of UN human rights monitors. Only when Haiti begins to function well economically will the threat of a renewed exodus be ended. The Coast Guard cordon, questionable and unconscionable, will contain it. Active processing of asylum requests within Haiti may provide a temporary policy palliative.

If the US wants to make a difference, it must help Haitians reclaim their country and economy from local warlords and gangsters. Improved prosperity will come from reforestation, irrigation, special prices for coffee, sugar, and sisal, and special tariffs for baseballs and other piece goods finished in Haiti with inexpensive labor. We can also train the military and encourage whoever governs to think less of immediate spoils and more of the medium-term good. We must provide workable incentives.

Only the Clinton administration and the thousands of prosperous Haitians living in the US can help Haiti out of its political slough. We need to be tough and clear as well as imaginative and nondoctrinaire. The only remaining alternative is a full-scale military intervention - Clinton's last resort.

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