President Clinton has decided to reopen processing facilities for refugees at the US base at Guantanamo in Cuba, as diplomats in Haiti confirm that enough wooden boats have been built to carry 100,000 people towards the coast of Florida.
The US is consulting its allies about sending troops to join a UN force which would guarantee civil order in Haiti in the aftermath of a possible US military intervention. According to a Washington Post- ABC news poll, 45 per cent of Americans approve of using force to restore democratic government in Haiti, while 50 per cent oppose. The number supporting military action has risen sharply over the last month.
'What moves this whole thing along is the outflow of refugees,' says Ian Martin, a Haiti specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 'The US government can't take between 500 and 1,000 refugees leaving every day for very long.' If Mr Clinton can say that the only alternative to the US being swamped by refugees is an invasion, then it would be difficult for the Republicans to oppose action.
The sudden surge in the number of Haitian boat people started when Mr Clinton reversed his previous policy and said that they would all be allowed to apply for political asylum before being returned to Haiti. Earlier the flow of refugees had largely stopped because few boats were evading the US coastguard vessels waiting to intercept them.
The exiled Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, said this week that he could not ask Haitians to stay or leave: 'I cannot ask them to stay because they may kill them there. I cannot ask them to leave, because they may die somewhere else.'
The black caucus in Washington has vigorously attacked as racist the policy of allowing white Cubans political asylum while sending black Haitians home.
President Aristide and his supporters would prefer to get rid of the junta through sanctions and US diplomatic pressure, fearing that US military action might turn into a quasi-occupation. Although the US has been committed to returning Mr Aristide ever since he was overthrown in 1991, it has also been deeply suspicious of him as a left-wing priest.
It is unclear if a decision to intervene militarily in Haiti will be affected by long-rumoured changes at the top of the State Department.
The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has shown little interest in the country. At the critical meeting at the White House in October, which decided to withdraw the transport ship Harlan County in the face of a demonstration by pro-junta gunmen, Mr Christopher remained silent.
Military intervention in Haiti might be portrayed as the beginning of a more assertive Clinton foreign policy, but this would be difficult to carry out with Mr Christopher in charge.
On the other hand, changing him now - just after the reshuffle in the White House - might look panicky. The Washington Post- ABC poll shows that 51 per cent disapprove of Mr Clinton's foreign policy and 41 per cent approve. The latest rumour in Washington suggests that Mr Christopher will go, but not until after the mid- term elections in November.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content