US does U-turn and toughens Haiti policy

IN A sharp reversal of policy, the US is to press the United Nations Security Council to toughen sanctions against Haiti unless its three top military leaders step down within the next 15 days. They must also start the restoration to power of the exiled President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom they overthrew in a coup in 1991.

The change reflects the determination of the White House to rid itself of its reputation for talking tough but backing down, be it in Bosnia or Haiti, at the first sign of resistance. Last October a US-brokered plan to restore Fr Aristide broke down when a US vessel carrying military training officers withdrew in the face of a demonstration by Haitian gunmen.

Effectively dropping its attempt to force Fr Aristide to share power with the men who deposed him, the Clinton administration this week fired its envoy to Haiti and decided to back a more rigorous economic embargo. The switch in policy follows intense pressure from the black caucus in Congressand criticism of President Bill Clinton for giving in to the Haitian military.

New measures include banning 600 Haitian officers from entering any other country, freezing their overseas assets, and banning non- commercial flights - to stop drugs smugglers using Haiti as a staging post. Ian Martin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a specialist on Haiti, said yesterday the effectiveness of fresh sanctions will depend on how much is done to 'stop leakage through the Dominican Republic'.

In the past, petrol and other supplies have been smuggled across the Dominican Republic's long border with Haiti, with the co-operation of Dominican army units. Mr Martin says the US 'has been consistently overconfident on stopping this happening'. Ever since last April, he says, the US has given comfort to the military by 'not going through with tough action after talking tough'.

At the centre of the new Security Council measures, to be voted on by early next week, is the demand that Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, the army commander, Philippe Biamby, his chief of staff, and Michel Francois, the police chief, step down within 15 days. They must also start to enforce the so- called Governor's Island Agreement concluded last year, under which they promised to restore Fr Aristide to power.

If the Haitian military fail to agree to this, an embargo as tough as that against Iraq will be imposed. The only exceptions will be the export of mangoes grown by poor peasant farmers and the import of basic foodstuffs and relief supplies.

President Clinton's Haiti policy has been in serious trouble even before he came into office. Having criticised President Bush for turning back Haitian boat-people fleeing to Florida without a hearing, he reversed himself and adopted the same policy even before taking office. A motive for the administration's present urgency is fear that the flight of refugees will resume.

The turning back of black Haitians - while white Cubans who reach Florida are welcomed - attracted accusations of racism. This is politically damaging, since 83 per cent of American black voters supported President Clinton in 1992 and about 40 Congressmen belong to the black caucus. Black anger finally boiled over when Randall Robinson, the well- respected leader of TransAfrica Forum, went on hunger strike in protest at the administration's Haiti policy.

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