Originally: Aristide can’t count on U.S.
Aristide can’t count on U.S.
The Haitian president vows to stay in office, but the Bush administration begins to ask publicly whether he can.
By DAVID ADAMS and DAVID BALLINGRUDPublished February 27, 2004
The Bush administration appeared Thursday to back away from its support of embattled Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for the first time questioning publicly whether he could “effectively continue” to govern the country.
With a rebel army occupying the northern half of the country and perched on the edge of the capital, the administration signaled the possible shift by ordering a full inter-agency review on Haiti.
Administration officials held a series of meetings across Washington, which included discussion on formulas to persuade Aristide to stop down, as well as U.S. participation in an international peacekeeping force.
“Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully in the interest of the Haitian people,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on Capitol Hill, where he briefed members of Congress.
After meeting Powell, Sen. Bill Nelson, D.-Fla., said he thought Aristide would soon step down, “and I think that’s what the administration wants.”
It remained unclear how that might be achieved, however, especially as Aristide, who was overthrown and forced into exile by a 1991 military coup, has vowed not to resign.
In an interview with CNN Thursday, Aristide repeated that vow, saying the rebellion could be easily snuffed out with a small international force of only a couple of dozen soldiers or police.
Administration officials are discussing a wide range of options. Privately, officials say they are most concerned about the deteriorating security situation and political considerations might have to take a back seat to avert the country falling into the wrong hands.
“U.S. diplomacy at this stage is suffering from focus and it is suffering from ambiguity,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. “They just don’t know what to do.
“But there are some creative things they could do,” he added. “One-hundred tough guys could put this under wraps.” Experts say one of the toughest issues facing the administration is that no one is sure what would happen if Aristide leaves or is forced out, as there is no obvious person to put in his place to stabilize the country.
A further obstacle is the closure of the Haitian Parliament last month, preventing any legislative action. The Parliament ceased functioning after the term of one-third of the members ran out because of a failure to hold elections.
The meetings in Washington followed Wednesday’s rejection by leaders of Haiti’s political opposition of a United States-backed power-sharing agreement that would have allowed Aristide to remain in power.
In rejecting the proposal, opposition leaders said they refused to consider any agreement that did not include Aristide’s resignation. Instead, the opposition countered with a proposal, asking the international community to begin looking for a “mechanism” to bring about the “timely and orderly” departure of Aristide.
Opposition leaders in Haiti said they had detected signs in the past 24 hours of a new “willingness” by the Bush administration to consider legal mechanisms for Aristide’s removal.
Opposition leader Andy Apaid said he was not surprised if Washington was beginning to rethink its support for Aristide: “They have no other way to run. Mr Aristide cannot reconcile the country.”
But time is running out.
With tensions rising on the streets of the capital, armed progovernment gangs Thursday began setting up barricades blocking roads. American Airlines said it was canceling scheduled flights in and out of the capital until March 3. Businesses reported that fuel supplies were running out and the local electricity company was no longer able to provide power to some parts of the city.
Powell’s remarks Thursday came on the heels of thinly veiled comments the day before by France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, which appeared to show weakening support for Aristide. In a statement, de Villepin stopped just short of calling for Aristide’s resignation.
“As far as President Aristide is concerned, he bears grave responsibility for the current situation,” de Villepin said. “It’s his decision, it’s his responsibility. Everyone sees that this is about opening a new page in the history of Haiti.”
The Associated Press reported that two Western diplomats said they and colleagues were preparing a request to ask Aristide to resign.
Before the announcement of last week’s peace proposal, the Bush administration had come under fire from members of Congress and Haiti analysts for its failure to take more decisive action as Haiti’s political crisis worsened.
“There’s an enormous concern among people on Capitol Hill about the security situation,” said Timothy Carney, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti. “I think they are looking for a political process that will lead to him departing the country in a controlled way.”
Nelson was one of several Democrat legislators who have been pushing all week for rapid U.S. intervention – U.S. or multinational – to restore order.
“There is no other alternative to the use of U.S. influence,” Sen. Bob Graham, D.-Fla., said in a speech on the floor of Congress Tuesday. “We must become engaged at a serious and sustained level, or be prepared to pay the cost of chaos 700 miles off our coast … the first step should be a police presence of sufficient scale that it can quell the violence.”
But, beyond sending 50 Marines Monday to guard the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, the Bush administration has given no sign it is willing to consider such an idea.
Nelson said he thought a strong military presence could be in Haiti “very quickly,” but added that “even a signal that you are going to put force has a stabilizing effect.”
Nelson and Graham warned that if the U.S. continued its policy, there could be major bloodshed and a mass exodus of residents in boats. “That’s not good for Haiti, not good for Florida and not good for the nation,” Nelson said.
Apaid said he last spoke with Powell by telephone on Tuesday before the opposition rejected the peace plan.
“The sooner they make a decision the better,” he said. “I have my life on the line.”
At the U.N. Security Council Thursday, Caribbean leaders urged the immediate authorization of a multinational force to restore law and order. But key council members, the United States and France, said they want a political settlement first.
The United States intervened militarily in Haiti as recently as 1994, when President Clinton sent 21,000 troops to restore Aristide to power after he was exiled for three years by the Haitian military during a previous presidential term.
Whether the United States is prepared to save his presidency a second time appears doubtful. Since Aristide was elected again in 2000, relations with Washington have been strained. U.S. officials have openly criticized Aristide and his ruling Lavalas Family Party for alleged vote rigging and political violence against his opponents.
The interagency review also came a day after a Haitian drug trafficker, Beaudoin “Jacques” Ketant, accused Aristide in a Miami courtroom Wednesday of receiving millions of dollars in drug money payoffs. Drug experts caution that Ketant, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison, has entered into a plea bargain with the U.S. government. His statements have yet to be verified by investigators, who have expressed interest in debriefing him.
– David Adams reported from Port-au-Prince. David Ballingrud reported from St. Petersburg.