Aware of the impact that unrest in Haiti could cause in the region, leaders of the Caribbean community, the Organization of American States, Canada, the United States and the European Union are increasing pressure to resolve a political crisis that has left more than 50 dead since September. However, talks with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and those calling for his departure have not stopped the demonstrations. Protesters have closed schools and businesses, damaged state and private media and wounded scores of bystanders.
Last week, the United States asked all nonessential personnel to leave Haiti. It warned Americans against visiting a place where the government ”has not been able to maintain order . . . and in some instances has assisted in violently repressing the demonstrations.” It also urged Aristide to come up with a timeline and specific actions that would persuade the opposition to participate in elections they are boycotting.
While the United States is visibly working toward a diplomatic solution, it is also working discreetly on a contingency plan in case of a mass migration. The State Department has confirmed that it is talking with nongovernmental organizations about a ”routine and regular planning process” to deal with issues from migration crises to natural disasters.
In late December, the State Department contacted nearly a dozen nongovernmental refugee relief agencies to inventory their resources, capabilities and staff in the Caribbean. Agency directors said that they were asked about their ability to run, by this month, a possible 50,000-bed refugee camp on the U.S. military base on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The timing seems anything but random; the agencies were contacted a few weeks after a Dec. 5 attack on State University students that left the dean with two broken legs and provoked more protests. But the request has made agency directors nervous. ”Providing that type of assistance while the U.S. military is in control gives the perception that the organization is under control of the military,” one NGO director told me. “That puts our staff in Third World countries in danger.”
It also raises questions about what the United States knows and isn’t saying. In 2003 the Coast Guard interdicted only 1,490 Haitians. The last time Guantánamo housed large numbers of Haitian refugees was during the period that followed the 1991 coup d’état that forced Aristide into exile before he could complete his first term in office. The U.S. Coast Guard and naval warships sealed off the island; over the next three years they pulled nearly 70,000 Haitians from the sea. Most of the refugees were deemed economic, not political, refugees, and eventually returned to Haiti.
A safe haven for Haitians
Labeling Haitians as economic refugees may be harder now (even though Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas) because much of the violence appears to be linked to calls for Aristide’s departure. Although the State Department argues that it will respond to large numbers ”in a way that protects the lives and safety of migrants as well as our borders,” there is a big difference between rescuing migrants at sea and fulfilling an obligation to provide them safe haven.
Last April, Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that Haitians posed a security risk to the United States because the island was a jumping-off point for terrorists from countries such as Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Freedom of Information requests from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center for supporting documentation came up blank. On Dec. 29, the State Department released a fact sheet that said Haitian migrants were a threat to U.S. national security. There is no record of Haitian terrorists.
As signatory of the U.N. Convention of Refugees, the United States is obliged to rescue and provide protection to those fleeing political violence. At the very least, we must treat all refugees fleeing violence with equal due process. We must continue to search for a diplomatic resolution that will allow democracy to prevail in Haiti. The contingency plan must respect international law and provide Haitians with full and meaningful protection.
Kathie Klarreich is a freelance journalist who reports on Haitian issues.
© 2004 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.