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Haiti and Clinton

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 settlement. Clinton officials also hope that, by deterring political violence, the observers will encourage many Haitians, who would otherwise try to flee the country, to stay.

Since the coup, the principal target of political violence in Haiti has been the country’s diverse civil society—the peasant associations, grassroots development projects, trade unions, student organizations, church groups, and radio stations that had sprung up after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, and were beginning to thrive during the eight months of Aristide’s presidency. With few organized political parties in Haiti, these civic groups gave crucial support to Aristide. Following his overthrow, the army has crushed these organizations by means of intimidation, detention, beatings, and murder. Virtually all forms of independent association have been banned.1 The aim has been to return to the fragmented, fearful society of the Duvalier era, so that even if international pressure were to secure Aristide’s return, he would have difficulty transforming his personal popularity into the organized support he would need to exert civilian authority over the army.

The presence of an observer force in Haiti is also intended to reassure the army that it will not face popular reprisals. One of the claims of the officers who led the coup against Aristide was that he encouraged popular violence against his opponents.2 The army clearly fears that Aristide’s return will cause an explosion of Père Lebrun, the Haitian term for “neck-lacing.” From exile in Washington, Aristide has broadcast repeated please to his supporters in Haiti to refrain from any violent retaliation. But whether he continues to do so, and whether his supporters will be willing to heed him, is likely to depend on whether a lawful way can be found to punish members of the army who have been responsible for the many killings since Aristide’s ouster.

Aristide’s insistence on accountability has been the sticking point in negotiations for his return. The accord worked out in February 1992 had granted a “general amnesty” to the army except for “common criminals.” Aristide accepted the accord but, despite the Bush administration’s opposition, interpreted the term “common criminals” to include the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Raoul Cédras, and other officers for their part in the bloodshed. Although Cédras is far from alone in his guilt for the killings, Aristide is particularly intent on punishing him. This partly reflects personal animosity: having promoted Cédras for his efforts in safeguarding the December 1990 elections that swept Aristide into office, he considered it a deep betrayal when Cédras then led the army that overthrew him and ruthlessly suppressed his followers.

Still, Aristide’s insistence on accountability for the post-coup murders is surely justified. As he told me in June, it would be a death sentence for him to return to Haiti while Cédras remained at the army’s head. Moreover, the failure to subject serious human rights violators to the rule of law sets a precedent of impunity that will endanger any civilian government in Haiti. While a state may appropriately forgive crimes against itself, such as participation in a coup, serious crimes against persons, such as murder, are an altogether different matter.

The Bush administration’s human rights report for 1992, issued on its last full day in office, takes account of the continuing violence in Haiti against the regime’s opponents, which, it says, is “exacerbated by the manifest unwillingness of the two post-coup governments to pursue criminal justice, particularly in cases of politically motivated murder.” But the report also mentions an abuse that it attributes to Aristide himself. As the September 1991 coup against Aristide was underway, Roger Lafontant, who had unsuccessfully tried the previous January to prevent Aristide’s inauguration, was murdered in his cell in Haiti’s National Penitentiary. Shortly afterward the prison’s warden announced that he had allowed a subordinate to carry out the murder under an order allegedly telephoned personally by Aristide.

While we may never know the truth, it hardly seems credible that a senior army commander would feel compelled to follow an obviously illegal order supposedly issued by a civilian leader who was then being overthrown by the army, and whose very life was at the time the subject of intense negotiations. Moreover, the army’s leaders had their own reasons for wanting Lafontant dead, since he had a substantial following among right-wing military and paramilitary forces. Nevertheless the Bush administration took considerable pains to link Lafontant’s murder to Aristide. A team of FBI agents was sent to Port-au-Prince last September to give the warden a polygraph test, which the press was then told that he had passed. No doubt further investigation of Lafontant’s murder is warranted, yet the Bush administration’s particular interest in this murder, while resisting Aristide’s effort to punish mass killings by the army, seemed to reveal less a concern with justice than a determination to put pressure on Aristide to back away from his insistence on accountability for past abuses.

In any event, Aristide appears to have quietly dropped his demand that senior army officers face prosecution or exile, but he continues to press for their dismissal. “How could we ask the Haitian people to accept at the helm of the armed forces leaders who symbolize the repression and brutality brought by the coup?” he wrote in The Washington Post on January 10. Or, as he put it in Creole in a broadcast over the Voice of America, the Haitian people should not “have to see General Cédras with his blood-stained uniform.”

Whether this can be accomplished remains to be seen. So far, Cédras has rejected any consideration that he might resign, and has proposed instead unspecified “structural reforms” of the military. The suggestion is bizarre coming from a man who, following the coup, presided over the dismantling of the most important structural reform of the military to date—Aristide’s replacement of the corrupt and often vicious section chiefs, the equivalent of rural sheriffs, by a civilian police force.

Clinton’s advisers have spoken of the need to “professionalize” the army—a term that Aristide also uses—but officials of the new administration have yet to make clear what that means. They favor creating a police force independent of the army and answerable to civilian authorities, as required by the Haitian constitution, as well as providing “training” for the army and the police. But so far they have avoided speaking about removing commanders who have committed murder. Training has its place in countries where security forces are well-intentioned but lack the technical knowledge to comply with human rights standards, but that hardly describes the Haitian army. Unless those already responsible for countless murders are removed, a training program will only produce more skillful murderers.

While the question of accountability for past abuses is the most difficult issue faced by the Clinton administration in shaping its Haitian policy, others must be resolved as well. One is the fate of the trade embargo that was sponsored by the OAS and adopted by the United States shortly after the coup. The embargo’s effectiveness always depended on its ability to stop the flow of oil, of which Haiti has only six weeks’ reserve. But while US Coast Guard cutters have stopped people from leaving Haiti, they have not prevented oil tankers from Europe and elsewhere from regularly slipping into Port-au-Prince. Much of the fault lies with the European Community, which insists that it will only join an embargo that has been approved by the Security Council—an unlikely prospect since China, with its veto, has its own reasons for discouraging the UN’s use of economic sanctions to promote democracy.

An inherently indiscriminate weapon, the embargo has mainly hurt the poor. The army, by contrast, has probably profited from the resulting rise in prices, since it controls the contraband trade. Yet the embargo’s psychological and symbolic value makes lifting it difficult without substantial progress toward restoring Aristide. And this raises the sensitive question of when Aristide can return to Haiti. Terrified of his appeal among the Haitian masses, the army prefers to grant him nominal recognition as legitimate president of Haiti without committing itself to a specific date for his return. Aristide accepted this formulation in the February 1992 accord, and as the target of two previous assassination attempts, he must have found delay advisable. But after sixteen months of exile, he is eager to return home, if his security can be assured.

In the interim, the government would be run by whoever holds the position of prime minister—a powerful post in its own right under Haiti’s French-style system of government. Aristide has agreed to name a prime minister from “the opposition.” The candidate whom he is under the greatest pressure to accept is the de facto government’s current prime minister, Marc Bazin. A conservative economist and former World Bank official who speaks eloquent English and French, Bazin has a following in Washington but little popularity at home. Having spent years angling for the presidency, he captured only 14 percent of the vote in the 1990 presidential elections, a distant second to the 67 percent attracted by Aristide’s last-minute candidacy. In conversations with me over the years, Bazin has always stressed the need to make peace with the military—a strategy in which he invariably gives himself a central role. (When The New York Times asked him in May why, for the sake of national peace, he wouldn’t simply support Aristide, he replied, “What’s in it for me?”) By agreeing last June to serve as prime minister of the de facto government, Bazin appeared to have disqualified himself from taking part in any future Aristide government. Yet Aristide may now be forced to overcome his distaste for Bazin, as the price for ridding the army of Cédras and his commanders.

The threat of a mass exodus of Haitian boat people early in Clinton’s term put pressure on the new administration to seek a solution. During the campaign, Clinton raised expectations among Haitians when he denounced as “cruel” and “immoral” the Bush policy of summarily repatriating boat people. But on January 14, surrounded by aides from the Carter administration with vivid memories of the Mariel boatlift and its political costs, Clinton announced that he would continue the Bush policy “for the time being.” Clinton made this decision even while recognizing that any long-term solution for the refugee crisis lies in ending Haiti’s political crisis—a point that refugee advocates had been stressing for over a year.

So far, any exodus has been prevented by the barricade of US Coast Guard cutters patrolling the Hatian coast, but, as The Washington Post reported, “Residents here said the halt was only temporary until the United States tired of the Coast Guard patrols or a political settlement returning ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was reached.”

Meanwhile, the policy of returning refugees who risk political persecution violates one of the cardinal principles of international law—the prohibition against refoulement, which forbids forcibly repatriating exiles to repressive circumstances unless they are first screened to exempt those with well-founded fears of persecution. Clinton’s proposal to repatriate the boat people first, and then screen them in Haiti for claims of political persecution, could in theory be made consistent with international law if safe havens were established, in which refugees could be processed free from the risk of persecution. But Clinton has not so far mentioned the option of safe havens. Instead, he has announced only his support for the deployment of international observers, and his intention of expanding opportunities for Haitians to apply for refugee status from within the country.

These steps, while positive, offer little protection to those repatriated, who often must wait for months for interviews to be scheduled, claims to be evaluated and, if successful, resettlement in the United States or other countries to be arranged. Haitians who are active in the popular organizations that are presumed to back Aristide thus continue to face the bleak choice of fleeing to the mountains, hiding with friends or relatives, bribing local military officials for permission to return home, or risking imprisonment, beating, and even death at the hands of a lawless army.

Clinton has justified this reversal of his own policy as a humanitarian gesture, to prevent Haitians from drowning at sea. Setting sail in rickety boats is clearly dangerous, and Clinton was right to dissuade Haitians from attempting the voyage. But this humane concern is hardly consistent with returning boat people unprotected to Haiti, as the new administration has said it will do. The Bush administration saved many lives by sending Coast Guard cutters to patrol the Haitian coast and to pick up the boat people before they reached the high seas. Until May, they were then taken to the US Naval Base at Guantánamo, Cuba, where US Immigration and Naturalization Service officers evaluated their claims to determine whether they would be allowed into the United States to seek asylum. During the ten years preceding the coup, INS adjudicators working aboard US Coast Guard cutters had found fewer than one percent of Haitian boat people to be fleeing political persecution. But at Guantánamo, nearly one third of the 35,000 processed were found to have credible claims of persecution. The increase was due not only to the severity of the recent repression in Haiti, but also to more careful procedures at Guantánamo, and a laudable effort within the INS to resist political pressures from Washington in processing claims for asylum. 3

Yet the flow of boat people accelerated as the higher acceptance rate encouraged others to take the one-in-three chance of winning legal access to the United States. This “magnet effect” led the Bush administration in May to end the screening at Guantánamo and to begin repatriating all the boat people, without regard to their status as refugees, and in clear violation of international law. When lawyers challenged the policy on behalf of the refugees, a federal appellate court in New York issued an order halting the practice, but the Supreme Court allowed it to continue, pending an appeal to be argued on March 2.

Uncertain about their prospects, refugee advocates had hoped that Clinton would make the case moot by ending summary repatriation. But now it seems likely that the new administration, having itself continued the policy, will be forced to defend it by urging the Supreme Court to limit this fundamental human rights guarantee.

In explaining why alternatives to a policy of summary repatriation are unworkable, Clinton aides say that the Guantánamo base, the obvious place to resume refugee screening, badly needs renovation, and that tents and other relief provisions are in short supply. Similar logistical reasons are offered to explain why no serious effort was made to convince the Haitian army to allow the creation of safe havens for refugee processing within Haiti. Yet these excuses ring hollow from a government that can mount extensive military operations on the other side of the world.

Contributing to the current caution have been the widely publicized statements by the Bush administration and by Clinton’s staff that between 50,000 and 100,000 Haitians would take to the sea during the new administration’s first weeks in office if summary repatriation were ended. Clinton aides seem to have derived this rough estimate by multiplying the number of boats that the Coast Guard counted on Haitian beaches—1,245—by an average of 50 to 100 occupants that each boat is believed capable of holding. But this calculation takes no account of the more limited numbers of Haitians who in fact fled their homeland while the policy of screening was in place. In the eight months before summary repatriation began, 35,000 Haitians left, including 13,000 in the final month. These numbers are by no means insignificant, but they are substantially smaller than the Clinton administration’s estimate for the first few weeks of its tenure. Indeed, if the presence of international observers succeeds in reducing human rights abuses, and progress on the political front renews a sense of hope among Haitians, the number fleeing the country is likely to be reduced further.

Moreover, if Guantánamo were itself made a safe haven rather than a way station to the United States—or, for that matter, if safe havens were established in Haiti—the attractiveness of taking to the seas would greatly diminish. Without a chance to enter the United States, economic migrants would have little incentive to leave. Even Haitians facing persecution might prefer to remain in hiding, on the chance that the international observers might deter further repression, than face indefinite confinement in a refugee camp. As much as one might like to see a more generous response to the desperate plight of a neighboring people, Haitians fleeing political persecution have no absolute right under international law to enter the United States. But they do have a right not to be forcibly sent home. A safe haven outside the United States would not be magnanimous, but it would at least be consistent with the legal duty to grant refuge to people fleeing persecution.

Still, one has to ask why Haitians are treated so differently from Cubans. When the US Coast Guard picks up Cuban “raft people”—the pervasive Cuban security apparatus prevents the construction of even makeshift boats—they are brought to Miami and given a hero’s welcome. Legislation passed at the urging of the powerful Cuban-American lobby contributes to this policy of discrimination, but much of the favorable treatment of Cubans is the result of administrative discretion. The solution is, of course, not to repatriate Cubans, who face up to three years’ imprisonment for “illegal exit,” but to ensure that Haitian refugees, many of whom face a serious risk of political persecution, are not given inferior treatment simply because they are poor and black.

Haiti’s future is now in the hands of the new American president. So far Aristide, who is wholly dependent on US support for his reinstatement, has refrained from criticizing Clinton for continuing Bush’s refugee policy, and has broadcast messages on the Voice of America urging Haitians to “stay in the country…to help to restore democracy.” But his cooperation could diminish if political negotiations stall over Aristide’s demand for accountability. Then, too, if Clinton sacrifices legal principle to expediency in the case of future Haitian refugees, he may raise doubts about the strength of his committment to Haitian democracy. If their country faces no end to its repression, many Haitians may give up hope and take to the sea once more.

January 28, 1993

  1. 1

    See the report to be released in February by Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, Silencing a People: The Destruction of Civil Society in Haiti.

  2. 2

    See my article, Haiti: The Shadows of Terror, in the March 26, 1992, issue of The New York Review.

  3. 3

    According to the State Department’s human rights report, the US embassy’s interviews with over 3,000 repatriates in Port-au-Prince did not find a single credible claim of retaliation against any Haitian “for having attempted to leave Haiti.” But that narrow finding makes no claim about persecution for other reasons, such as support for Aristide. Moreover, some Haitians have faced persecution simply for attempting to flee, such as the 107 Haitians arrested in Gonaïves three days before the report’s release under a Duvalier-era law prohibiting unauthorized departure. The embassy’s survey had little chance of finding people who faced such persecution because it was conducted largely from a group that excluded those most at risk, and interviews were often held in public settings, where people in danger would not dare to appear, let alone discuss their experience with perseuction. See Half the Story: The Skewed US Monitoring of Repatriation Haitian Refugees, a report by Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

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