Among the few foreign policy statements Bill Clinton made during the campaign was his vow to restore democracy in Haiti and to end the Bush administration’s summary repatriation of Haitian boat people. In the first week of his presidency Clinton revived diplomatic efforts on behalf of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the liberation priest who became Haiti’s first freely elected president, and was overthrown in September 1991. But Clinton did not make clear his views on the key obstacle to a political settlement: whether military commanders should be brought to justice for the murder of hundreds if not thousands of Aristide’s followers since the coup. Moreover, Clinton’s commitment to human rights has been put in question by his decision, made just before the inauguration, to break his campaign promise and to continue the Bush repatriation policy.
Clinton’s announced intention to reverse the coup is a refreshing change from the Bush administration’s mounting hostility toward Aristide. With the collapse of a short-lived political accord in February 1992, Bush officials clearly became impatient with Aristide for insisting that the Haitian army’s leadership be prosecuted or exiled for their brutal slaughter of Haitian citizens. So long as the army cooperated with efforts to stop the flood of refugees setting sail for Florida, the Bush administration seemed willing to accommodate the de facto government.
The Bush administration’s excuse for doing so was that it lacked influence over events in Haiti. But the tremors set off in Port-au-Prince by Clinton’s election reveal instead a failure of will on Bush’s part. Clinton has made it clear that he wants to solve Haiti’s political crisis, which he believes is the best way to avert a huge exodus of refugees. With the encouragement of Clinton’s transition team, Aristide appealed to the United Nations to supplement the efforts of the sluggish and underfunded Organization of American States to protect the rights of Haitians and to restore the elected government. Dante Caputo, the former Argentine foreign minister, was named to head a joint UN-OAS diplomatic effort.
Given the enormous US influence on the impoverished Haitian economy, no government in Port-au-Prince can afford to ignore the preferences of Washington. So with the new administration’s announced commitment to elected government in Haiti, the small and underequipped Haitian army suddenly appeared open to a settlement. In mid-January 1993, the army hesitantly agreed in principle to the deployment of a large group of UN-OAS observers. If the Haitian army keeps to its commitment, the UN-OAS group may number as many as 500 and will have the right to travel throughout the country—unlike the OAS mission that was agreed to the previous year, which the army limited to eighteen members and prohibited from leaving Port-au-Prince. As with the largely successful UN-sponsored peace process in El Salvador, the observers will be present in Haiti before a final political accord is worked out, with the hope of building the climate of confidence needed to reach a …