Supply a `Safe Haven' in Haiti

FOR 200 years, Haitians have struggled to overcome political and economic instability in their country. The results have generally been disappointing - not just for the Haitian people but also for the rest of us who care.

Aided by contingents from other countries, six United States destroyers and 2,000 military personnel now patrol the waters around Haiti, enforcing an embargo aimed at a renegade military regime that refuses to allow the peaceful return of Haiti's popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. So far the embargo has missed its target, hitting mostly Haiti's poor.

Established in 1804, Haiti has continuously experienced unrest and instability, manifest by foreign occupation, brutal dictatorships, and exploitation of generations of poor citizens. The solution to Haiti's problems lies in Haiti and must spring from Haitians on Haitian soil. It cannot be decreed by White House spin doctors.

Most people share the goal of encouraging the return of Haiti's democratically elected president, something of a mystical folk hero to the 70 percent of Haitians who elected him. He belongs with the crowds who listen to what he says and chant for his return.

Utilizing the Ile de la Gonave, an island that is Haitian soil, as a ``safe haven,'' Mr. Aristide could in relative safety begin the process of rebuilding stability in Haiti. Supporters from the mainland could rally around him, receive food, shelter, support, and protection if necessary. All this could be accomplished under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), perhaps initially supported by one US Coast Guard cutter and a handful of properly trained and armed Aristide loyalists for security. The OAS and the United Nations could play pacific, supporting roles as the Aristide administration gradually re-established its authority.

This proposal may be the best hope to help Haiti solve its own problems. The morale boost of Aristide's presence on Haitian soil should not be underestimated. It would deflate the pressure for desperate Haitians to attempt the treacherous journey to Miami. Of course, the risk of international presence might not deter Aristide's opposition. But at least the safe-haven concept would allow Aristide to succeed or fail at making peace by negotiation rather than by gun barrels.

This proposal offers a relatively non-threatening way for Aristide to govern without triggering an automatic armed conflict between the Haitian army and foreign troops sent to Haiti to prop up Aristide. American ``gun boat'' tactics are not going to accomplish the goal of taking the weapons away from the army and their associates in Haiti who now wield power. At best, some characterize Haiti's standing army as a jobs program. At worst, it is a terrorist mechanism working both overtly and under cover to impose its ruthless will on the masses using fear, murder, and torture. Either way, there is little justification for a 7,000-man army in a desperately poor country that faces no external threat but needs to build infrastructure and create jobs.

The Clinton administration's foreign policy in Haiti has left us at least two rungs further down the ladder when it comes to helping Haiti climb out of its abyss of despair. We lost ground by misunderstanding reality and showing naivete in the negotiating process; and, in a series of missteps based on an appalling lack of advance information, we exposed our friends and endangered builders of democracy.

The US should now show its support for Haitians by toning down the rhetoric and working toward a Haitian solution in Haiti.

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