2004Feb. 13 – It is one of the last things the Bush administration needs as it gears up for the president?s re-election campaign: an intractable foreign-policy crisis smack dab in the middle of America?s backyard, with the potential to unleash an exodus of desperately poor refugees bound for Florida?s Atlantic Coast. But that?s exactly what is looming 700 miles offshore in Haiti, where an unpopular government is facing an armed uprising and shows every intention of remaining in power barring decisive action by outside forces.

With nearly two years left in his term of office, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has vowed to resist demands by the political opposition for his immediate resignation. The current crisis has been brewing for more than two months and entered a deadly phase a week ago when a gang of thugs stormed police stations in Gonaives, a major seaport of 200,000 located 70 miles north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The revolt quickly spread to nearly a dozen other towns in northern Haiti and has killed nearly 50 people. But the uprising appears to be running out of gas after police units and pro-government militias regained control in three of the strife-torn towns earlier this week.

The standoff offers little prospect of an early resolution. At a press conference Wednesday, Aristide reaffirmed his determination to complete his term, which ends in February 2006. The president sought to blame the latest unrest?which was ignited in Gonaives by a group of formerly pro-Aristide gunmen once known as the Cannibal Army?on a coalition of opposition leaders and businessmen who began staging a series of protests last fall. Many of those opposition activists publicly distanced themselves from the violence earlier this week, but their room for maneuver remains sharply limited by a government that has repeatedly used pro-Aristide toughs to break up peaceful demonstrations in the past. Opposition leaders got a fresh reminder of that yesterday when militant supporters of the government thwarted a planned protest march in Port-au-Prince by erecting barricades of blazing tires and stoning demonstrators. Some anti-Aristide activists are now openly calling on Washington to seek the president?s removal from office. ?If the U.S. asked Aristide to go, he would do it,? says Frandley Denis Julien, the head of an opposition civic group called Citizens? Initiative. ?If the U.S. doesn?t do something right now, we?ll have a humanitarian crisis in Haiti.?

It is that scenario that most worries policymakers in the Bush administration. Roadblocks mounted by Aristide loyalists and antigovernment gangs along the country?s main north-south highway are preventing relief agencies from delivering food to impoverished rural areas. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Haiti ranks third among countries with the highest malnutrition rates worldwide, behind only Somalia and Afghanistan, and relief workers warn that food supplies could run out in a matter of days in some remote villages. The specter of an Ethiopia-style famine could spark a fresh invasion of boat people on Florida?s shores, and officials in Washington are reportedly drawing up contingency plans to house up to 20,000 refugees at the U.S. naval base at Cuba?s Guantanamo Bay.

To date, however, the White House has given no clear indication of what if anything it plans to do about Haiti. It has always taken a rather dim view of Aristide, a former liberation-theology Roman Catholic priest who was first elected president in 1991 and was toppled months later by a military coup. The Clinton administration restored Aristide to power in 1994, but did little to curb his increasingly authoritarian grip on power. The opposition accused the government of committing fraud in the country?s 2000 parliamentary elections and then boycotted the presidential balloting that gave Aristide a second term as chief of state later that same year. Opposition leaders have been lobbying the international community ever since to force Aristide?s resignation and convene new elections. The Bush administration has largely ignored the three-year-old political stalemate in Haiti, but the turmoil of the past week has put the country back on the U.S. government?s radar screen. ?Reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed and how the security situation is maintained,? said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Tuesday.  

Those remarks were widely interpreted as a not so subtle message that the sooner Aristide goes, the better. But short of sending in the Marines, the U.S. government?s options are somewhat limited. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bluntly told reporters earlier this week that the U.S. military has ?no plans to do anything? in Haiti. About $500 million in loans earmarked for the Caribbean country have been frozen by multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank, and further economic sanctions could prove counterproductive. All of the $72 million that Washington sent to Haiti in foreign aid last year was channeled through nongovernmental organizations, and cutting off that modest level of assistance would probably harm ordinary Haitians more than it would Aristide. ?Sanctions make sense when you have an immediate goal in mind,? says Lawrence Pezzullo, a retired U.S. ambassador who served as a special adviser on Haiti in the early years of the Clinton administration. ?But the country is suffering enough, and when you impose sanctions you end up hurting the people.?

The only diplomatic initiative offering Aristide and his political opposition a face-saving way out of the present deadlock has come from the 15-nation Caribbean Community, a regional bloc that counts Haiti among its members. A delegation of fellow Caribbean chiefs of state met with Aristide in Jamaica last month and extracted pledges from him to disarm pro-government gangs, establish clear rules for holding peaceful demonstrations and release all Haitians who have been arbitrarily detained for political reasons. Aristide also accepted in principle a proposal to invite opposition leaders into a government of national unity and appoint a prime minister from their ranks. But opposition leaders rejected out of hand any negotiations with Aristide and stand by their demands that he must first quit as president. ?We are willing to negotiate through which door he leaves the palace, the front door or the back,? said Evans Paul of the opposition Democratic Convergence group. ?Aristide has zero credibility, and if we negotiate with Aristide we lose our credibility.? Haiti is one foreign-policy mess that is not entirely of the Bush administration?s own making. But the longer it festers, the worse the consequences will be for its 8 million people?and the repercussions could well extend to the beaches of Miami and beyond.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.