US changes tack on Haiti death squads

AFTER three years of downplaying human rights abuses in Haiti, the US embassy in the capital, Port-au-Prince, has suddenly begun to publicise the death squads' deeds, in an apparent effort to win support at home for military intervention.

Parked beside the road near the Haitian capital last Tuesday was the car of a burly USAid official, Bill Radline, who was investigating the murders of at least 12 young Haitians buried nearby in three mass graves.

Noting that it would be difficult to find out the details of the massacre because 92 UN human rights monitors were being expelled that day, Mr Radline said he hoped the media 'would give the killings all the publicity possible'.

US officials in Haiti did not always speak like this. As recently as last April Ellen Cosgrove, the embassy human rights officer in Port-au-Prince, wrote a lengthy classified telegram to the State Department, which was leaked to the press.

In it she said: 'President (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide and his supporters in Washington and here consistently manipulate and even fabricate human rights abuses as a propaganda tool.' In particular, she was 'frankly suspicious of the sudden, high number of reported rapes' of women opposed to the regime.

Early this year the State Department's annual report on the state of human rights was noticeably restrained on Haiti, admitting the large numbers of death squad murders, but careful not to blame the military government too directly.

By last week, however, as Haitians waited to see if President Bill Clinton would order into action the invasion fleet massing on the horizon, US officials had no doubt who was behind the violence. Nancy Ely- Raphel, a senior State Department spokeswoman in Washington, said the island's military rulers were 'slowly turning Haiti into a hell'.

Juan Mendez of Americas Watch, the human rights organisation, says the State Department changed its attitude because 'the object was no longer to reach an accommodation with the military'.

Throughout the past year the US put great diplomatic effort into trying to force Father Aristide to reach a power-sharing agreement with the army commanders. This was the basis of the so-called Governor's Island Agreement, under which Fr Aristide was to return to power. Even after the murder of his two leading supporters - including his justice minister, Guy Mallary - by gunmen of the junta, the US embassy believed that it could unite the army commanders and the man they overthrew in 1991.

At the heart of American strategy was the twin aim of bringing Fr Aristide back but stopping him from introducing radical change, by leaving the army a large share of power. This required blurring the responsibility for the death squads, believed to be tightly controlled by the military leadership, which has killed 300 opponents this year. It was this policy which collapsed in May.

Under growing pressure from black leaders at the UN, Mr Clinton conceded that it was difficult for Fr Aristide to deal with opponents who sliced off the faces of their enemies.

William Swing, the US ambassador, who had signed the April telegram, issued what amounted to a public apology for its errors.

Ironically, the switch in US policy occurred just as the number of dead bodies turning up in and around Port-au-Prince was going down. In May and June, the UN human rights monitors say, there were fewer killings. When the lull in the violence was broken by last week's massacre at Morne-a-Bateau, the US embassy even exaggerated what had happened, speaking of 'pools of blood' when in fact there were few bloodstains to be seen. The victims were probably killed elsewhere.

By downplaying the violence of the military regime in Haiti, the State Department did some damage to its reputation for showing real concern for human rights. But it also probably encouraged a damaging degree of self-deception in Washington. For more than a year the Clinton administration believed that it was dealing with a government which could be forced to compromise with its opponents when its record showed its only aim was to kill them.