US seeks more 'safe havens' for Haitians

REJECTED by Panama and Honduras, the US is now looking for a temporary home for Haitian boat-people in countries better known to philatelists than diplomats. Grenada, where the US was recently considering closing its embassy, has agreed to help. So has Antigua.

The seriousness of the foreign policy crisis facing President Clinton over Haiti is underlined by the turmoil created in Washington by Panama's unexpected withdrawal of its offer to take 10,000 Haitian refugees. Unwilling to see the Haitians seek asylum in the US but unable to find anywhere else for them to go Mr Clinton needs to stop them leaving Haiti.

The only way this can be done is by overthrowing the military regime of General Raoul Cedras and returning President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has lived in exile in Washington since the coup in 1991. By restoring him to power the US would end the current political persecution, which is the basis for Haitian boat people asking for political asylum.

The speed with which the policy of 'safe havens' for refugees announced at the start of the week is unravelling is strengthening the conviction in Washington that it must act soon. Since 16 June, when President Clinton eased entry for Haitian refugees under pressure from American black leaders, some 16,000 people have bought passage on jerry-built wooden boats and tried to sail to Florida.

There is little sign of this exodus ending. President Clinton does not want to let the Haitians into the US because of the political reaction in Florida. He cannot revert to his old policy, inherited from President Bush, of simply sending them home because he has already disavowed it.

The temporary solution to the crisis, announced this week by William Gray, who co-ordinates US policy on Haiti, is to establish 'safe havens' for boat people until it is safe to return. The havens were to be established in countries normally obsequious to the US - such as Panama, whose President, Guillermo Endara, was actually sworn in at a US military base when the US invaded in 1989.

The US turned out to have miscalculated. President Endara, claiming the US had changed the terms of the arrangement, said that what Washington wanted to do was 'a disgraceful precedent'. Nor is the safe haven plan popular elsewhere. 'There is terrific solidarity with Haiti in the eastern Caribbean because it was the first independent black state,' says Lucretia Stewart, author of a forthcoming book on the Lesser Antilles. 'But they all have very high unemployment. A flood of Haitians willing to do menial jobs would only make it worse.'

As a result, the US is expanding its holding camp for refugees at its base at Guantanamo in Cuba to 20,000 and is looking to build holding camps elsewhere. Grenada, invaded by the US in 1983, will host one. Ms Stewart says that Antigua, which has agreed to take 2,000 Haitians, was, until recently, considered 'so corrupt by Washington that it had as little do with it as possible'. Also being approached are Surinam, Guyana and others, unnamed, in West Africa.