EIGHTEEN months after a military regime seized power in Haiti, the Clinton administration is increasing the pressure to return the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
President Clinton met with Fr. Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest, at the White House in mid-March and pledged that the United States "will not now or ever support the continuation of an illegal government in Haiti."
While the Bush administration also supported the return of democracy in Haiti, the Clinton administration has started to put teeth into that policy.
Although much of the US action so far has been diplomatic, President Clinton has threatened to take "stronger measures," which could include tightening a leaky embargo against Haiti and seizing the US assets of the military leaders now ruling the small Caribbean nation.
"It's a sea change in US policy," says a congressional aide who deals with Haitian issues.
"Bush allowed international institutions, such as the OAS (Organization of American States), to take the lead [on Haiti]. Clinton is more aggressive and more involved," says a State Department official. He adds that "Haiti is fairly high on the agenda."
Part of the reason for the change in US policy may be the continuing problem of Haitian refugees.
Since 1991, the Coast Guard has intercepted 40,000 Haitian boat people, most of whom have been returned. But 270 Haitians diagnosed as having the HIV virus that may cause AIDS were detained at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The refugees - 20 of whom were admitted to the US April 5 under a court order - have been a minor political embarrassment for the president. During the campaign, Clinton criticized President Bush's policy of not admitting the refugees into the US, but since being elected he has continued to keep them out - a policy that has been attacked by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others.
Clinton has apparently "made the linkage that the way to solve the refugee problem is with democracy," said a source close to Aristide.
"What is gone is the mixed signals out of the US government."
For now, the the administration's main effort seems to be in the diplomatic arena. Lawrence Pezullo, special US envoy to Haiti, returned to Washington last week after delivering "a very tough message ... that our patience is running thin," White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said.
Another envoy, Gen. Jack Sheehan of the US Marine Corps, left for Haiti on March 29. A diplomat in Port-au-Prince who is close to the OAS negotiations says that General Sheehan's job is "theoretically to work on professionalizing the army but really to apply pressure" on the military regime to step down.
IN addition, Dante Caputo, negotiator for the United Nations and the OAS, ended talks last week with Lieut. Gen. Raoul Cedras and Police Chief Michel Francois, leaders of the military regime in Port-au-Prince.
Mr. Caputo is expected this week in Washington to meet with US officials and with Aristide, says a State Department spokesman.
This flurry of diplomatic activity has not managed to remove the obstacles to Aristide's return, however.
Aristide has said he would be willing not to return to Haiti for a six-month period after the armed forces give up power if, in the meantime, a civilian prime minister were appointed and elections scheduled. But Aristide continues to resist the military's demand for a pardon for any crimes they may have committed while in power.
A blanket pardon is "necessary for a settlement," a congressional source says, and the lack of one makes it unlikely that the military regime will step down soon.
"I don't think Cedras and Michel Francois are willing to step down - they want to stay," says the diplomat close to the OAS in Port-au-Prince.
But even if the US pressure does not force out the Haitian junta, it already has had some tangible effects. Following Clinton's inauguration, the Haitian military allowed 103 human-rights monitors from the OAS and UN to fan out into the countryside. Previously, only 25 monitors had been allowed into the country, and they had been confined in the capital.
"The presence of the 103 members of the UN-OAS civilian monitoring team encouraged demonstrations which began last week," said the diplomat in Port-au-Prince.
On April 4, for instance, the Army allowed the first pro-Aristide rally in the capital since the 1991 military coup.