WORLD

TROUBLED WATERS

American policy on Haiti flounders as thousands of desperate refugees attempt to flee by boat

CARL MOLLINS July 18 1994
WORLD

TROUBLED WATERS

American policy on Haiti flounders as thousands of desperate refugees attempt to flee by boat

CARL MOLLINS July 18 1994

TROUBLED WATERS

WORLD

American policy on Haiti flounders as thousands of desperate refugees attempt to flee by boat

BY CARL MOLLINS

REPORT FROM WASHINGTON

On Independence Day in the heart of Washington, sculptor Michée Ramil Rémy squatted on a patch of National Mall grass, carefully beating on a rusty disk of steel with a cold chisel and hammer. It was sweaty work, fashioning one end of an old oil drum into an intricate wall plaque known in translation from his Creole French as “cutout iron.” And the clamor and questions of a holiday crowd made it hard to concentrate. But Rémy had reason to feel lucky, if only for the duration of his part in an eight-day Festival of American Folklife, which featured demonstrations by almost 400 artists, cooks, musicians and dancers from across the United States and 11 other countries. Rémy is a Haitian who travelled to Washington from his homeland by

invitation. He thereby

achieved at least a taste of what thousands of his compatriots, on that very day, vainly risked death to achieve: asylum from tyranny, poverty and fear by fleeing to the “land of the free.” And as the U.S. capital last week celebrated American multiculturalism, including the folkways imported over the years by immigrants from Haiti and other lands, new policies announced in Washington only deepened the desperation of Haitians striving to escape to freedom.

On the Fourth of July, unknown at the time to Rémy or the festive crowds on the Mall, events affecting Haiti unfolded swiftly and tragically.

• In the Caribbean, U.S. Coast Guard cutters picked up 3,247 Haitian boat people seeking asylum, the largest one-day total in the Florida-bound exodus that began after military leaders deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept. 30, 1991. (In all since then, more than 60,000 Haitians have made mostly fruitless attempts to flee to the United States.)

• Off the Haitian port of St. Marc, about 80 km northeast of sculptor Rémy’s hometown of Croix des Bouquets, an estimated 150 refugees drowned when their crowded boat capsized.

• At Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s seaport capital, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel returned 183 Haitian applicants for asylum after shipboard immigration officers ruled that they did not meet the main refugee requirement, proof of political endangerment.

• In Miami, a Florida church organization arranged the settlement of 137 Cuban boat people who landed on the weekend, raising the total of Cubans granted entry in June alone to 1,173. In the same month, the coast guard turned away 1,667 Haitians off Florida.

• In Managua, Nicaragua, at an international meeting on democracy, Aristide reinforced his opposition to the use of force to restore him to power. “We say no to the invasion,” declared the exiled priest-president

• In Washington, barely six blocks from the folk festival’s marquees and exotic food stalls, officials in the White House put the finishing touches to an announcement, made the following day, of a shift in its Haiti policy, retaining the possible use of force.

The policy, devised at six hours of meetings under President Bill Clinton before he set out on a week-long European tour, was announced on July 5 by the President’s special adviser on Haiti, William Gray. Henceforth, refugees plucked from Floridabound boats off Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard would no longer be “processed” for possible admission to the United States, a program launched less than three weeks earlier. Nor would they simply be shipped back home to possible reprisals, the practice that prevailed for the previous 32 months. Instead, the boat people are to be placed in nearby Caribbean camps. There they will stay until Haiti’s military regime relinquishes power or is forced out, and Aristide is restored to office from exile in Washington.

At the same time, Gray and the Pentagon announced military measures calculated to encourage Haiti’s rulers to abdicate. Those measures also serve to indicate that U.S. policy, denounced by critics as racist, means to do more than fend off Haitian refugees. A shipborne force of 2,000 U.S. marines joined 650 marines already on station off Haiti. The U.S. navy reinforced a Caribbean fleet that includes eight U.S. warships, an Argentine ship and the Canadian frigate Terra Nova enforcing UN trade sanctions imposed on Haiti. Meanwhile, elite

troops had already conducted invasion rehearsal exercises in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

The “military option” remained a possibility but is not imminent, said Gray, defining imminence on July 5 as “a few days.”

The invasion option poses a serious political risk for Clinton and his Democrats, especially with congressional elections only four months away.

American voters, and much of the mainstream media, are wary of foreign military entanglements. Many analysts argue that, although the 7,500-strong Haitian army might be easily overwhelmed, securing the mountainous island state in any guerrillastyle war and fashioning order out of chaos in the aftermath are likely to require long and costly operations. In 1915, during the era of U.S. Big Stick diplomacy, American forces occupied Haiti in a crusade against political anarchy, killed more than 2,000 Haitians and stayed for 20 years. In 1916, the marines seized the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and remained there for eight years. Nowadays, in the wake of a bloody decade in Vietnam, Americans will tolerate foreign wars only when they are quick and clean. Analyst David Gompert, a National Security Council adviser to former president George Bush, observes in a comment on the Gulf War in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: “Desert Storm taught the American people, wrongly, that vital interests could be defended with a handful of casualties in a video-game war.”

Domestic politics has been a governing factor in Clinton’s lurching policy shifts over the Haitian crisis. He is trapped by conflicting pressures. On one side stands a wave of popular opinion against immigration, including impoverished refugees who become a burden on strained state treasuries. Populous Florida and California are among states taking legal action against Washington to recover funds expended on poor immigrants. That has become a festering constitutional

issue, with Washington in charge of immigration but the states required to look after the welfare of new arrivals.

On the other side, Clinton is goaded by the 40-member Black Caucus in Congress, whose pressure prompted his short-lived recent decision to admit some Haitian boat people. In the 435-seat House of Representatives, where Clinton programs have scraped into law by margins as narrow as a single vote, the President needs all the support he can muster for his much-disputed health-care reform and other proposals that he seeks to make law this year. Late last week, Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore called for air raids on military targets to make it clear to Haiti’s rulers that “we are serious about destroying their capacity to continue their reign of terror.” And he denounced Clinton’s vacillations as “a policy of anarchy.”

Even the latest Clinton policy ran into trouble. Panama withdrew a promise to harbor 10,000 refugees in U.S.-built camps for up to a year. Washington is now expanding a camp on its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and seeking other Caribbean sites. Canada’s only response was to agree to have the Terra Nova pick up boat people and deliver them to U.S. ships. In Montreal, Haitian community leader Eric Faustain said a “more constructive” policy would be to rid Haiti of a regime “causing these people to flee their country.” On the Washington Mall, a few days after the holiday, what does Rémy think of his homeland’s plight, of U.S. policy or the grudging promises of future help by “the Friends of Haiti,” Canada, France, Venezuela and Argentina? Creole interpreters intervene to say that the six Haitians at the festival are not here to talk politics. What is that design taking shape under Rémy’s hammer, two human figures holding hands? “Amour,” says Rémy. Love.

LUKE FISHER