Leading Article: Hard choices about an invasion of Haiti

THE possibility of an American invasion of Haiti is now edging closer. Anonymous American officials have confirmed that contingency plans for an invasion are being updated in case economic sanctions fail to dislodge the country's military rulers. Four amphibious ships with 2,000 marines sailed for Haiti on Wednesday, and the New York Times reports a recent exercise described as 'the final rehearsal'.

The State Department is thought to be against invasion. So, reportedly, is the exiled legitimate ruler of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Critics fear that it could unleash an orgy of killing, some of it directed against the 3,000-4,000 Americans in Haiti. Moreover, setting up a democracy after an invasion would not be easy. Haiti has long been a by-word for corruption, tyranny and brutality. If the Americans go in they will have to stay for many years and pay for a long process of reconstruction.

Nevertheless, the case for invasion grows slowly stronger. Until recently, the sanctions were doing more harm than good. Huge smuggling operations and inflation were making the rich richer and the poor desperate. The result

was a heartbreaking flood of refugees, which increased to 1,000 a day when word got around that

the United States was granting asylum with relative liberality.

The sanctions have since been tightened and the rich Haitian businessmen who support the regime are becoming nervous. This week the US started diverting refugees to holding camps in Panama and elsewhere, so that problem may become more manageable. But even effective sanctions will take time to bite. Meanwhile, the poverty and desperation of the population intensify while the US is drawn into a confrontation from which it cannot withdraw without loss of face.

Clearly, it would be better to avoid invasion, if possible. The Americans are not good at deft, surgical interventions (see Panama), so there would be loss of life among civilian Haitians and Americans. Fr Aristide would start with the disadvantage of appearing as an American puppet. The population might gradually turn against the Americans in their anger and disappointment.

So, if the present rulers can be intimidated, bought off or isolated from their narrow circle of supporters, Haiti's future will look more promising. But if the alternative is a rising tide of refugees, prolonged misery and starvation for those who remain, and another humiliating retreat for US foreign policy, invasion might be the lesser of two evils.

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