Blunders bring US to brink of invasion: Haiti looms large on President Clinton's horizon but resolute action earlier on might have avoided the need for an invasion

THE CLINTON administration has tried so hard to avoid invading Haiti that it has convinced the Haitian military it is not serious about any intervention. A more resolute attitude at an earlier stage and the regime might have gone quietly. Now the White House is paying for its irresolution by planning one of the most unpopular military interventions in US history.

Even before entering the White House, president-elect Bill Clinton changed his Haiti policy. During the 1992 campaign he attacked President Bush for turning back Haitian boat people without giving them a hearing. But in January 1993 his staff had visions of his inaugural procession down Pennsylvania Avenue being spoiled by television pictures of Haitian refugees landing in Miami.

In collaboration with President Bush, a force of coastguard vessels was sent to patrol Haitian waters. Haitians, who had cheered in the streets when Mr Clinton was elected the previous November, began to feel let down. The White House then distanced itself from its more radical Haitian policy of the previous year.

Throughout this early period of the Clinton administration US policy was being carried by holdovers from the Bush era. Although they theoretically supported President Jean-Bertrand Aristide against Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, they were deeply suspicious of the left-wing priest with his liberation theology. Fr Aristide did not help himself by explaining to visiting US dignitaries their country's responsibility for Haiti's troubles.

The US pursued a contradictory policy. Restore Fr Aristide but clip his wings. Put him back in the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince but keep the military as a balance. It might have worked but it was based on a fundamental error: the Haitian military was not prepared to share power, particularly as they thought the US would pull its punches at the last minute.

General Cedras and Colonel Michel Francois are both graduates of Fort Benning in the US. They had close links with the CIA. They knew Washington was deeply divided. But they were prepared to talk.

The first phase of Mr Clinton's foreign policy on Haiti was orchestrated by his special envoy, Lawrence Pezzullo, and the UN and OAS special envoy, Dante Caputo, a former Argentinian foreign minister. Sanctions had been imposed after the coup in 1991. In June 1992 they were reinforced to include oil and arms. Pressure was put on Fr Aristide, now based in Washington, to offer the military a compromise solution. Ian Martin, a Haitian specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote: 'The United States hoped to preserve the military - an institution it had often assisted and, in fact, had created for purposes of internal control during the American occupation of 1915-34.'

Negotiations produced the Governor's Island Agreement, signed in New York on 3 July last year. President Aristide was to return to Haiti on 30 October. He was to offer an amnesty, and the UN would suspend sanctions. Fr Aristide and General Cedras refused to meet during negotiations. General Cedras was to retire before Fr Ariside returned.

In their eagerness to get the agreement the US, which put heavy pressure on both sides, failed to provide a mechanism by which Fr Aristide's supporters would be protected from the death squads - ultimately controlled by the regime - in the four months before he returned. Sanctions, which had brought the Haitian military to the negotiating table, were suspended. An amiable businessman named Robert Malval was named prime minister by Fr Aristide.

The Governor's Island Agreement failed, and its failure has brought the US to the brink of an invasion this week. It ignored the violent realities of Haitian life. The death squads became more, not less, active - an average of 60 bodies a month were found in Port-au-Prince. Since the coup, human rights monitors estimate 3,000 Haitians have been killed, often after savage torture.

Leading article, page 15

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