WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 ? As the Haitian crisis deepens, with violence flaring and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide locked in an impasse with his opponents, the Bush administration has placed itself in the unusual position of saying it may accept the ouster of a democratic government.
The stance recalls the administration’s initial response to the April 2002 coup attempt against another elected, populist leader in the hemisphere, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. American officials touched off an outcry by appearing to blame Mr. Chávez for the uprising and consulting with his would-be successors.
Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said Tuesday that “reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed, and how the security situation is maintained.”
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the administration favored dialogue to ease Haiti’s crisis, but that it might support replacing Mr. Aristide, who has two years left in his term.
“When we talk about undergoing change in the way Haiti is governed, I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide’s position,” the official said.
Administration officials stopped short of calling for President Aristide’s resignation, but their remarks were seen as emboldening a widening and unwieldy opposition ? including former supporters, armed gangs, demobilized army members and political foes ? that seeks his removal.
Officials contacted on Wednesday said the remarks were not intended to signal a change of policy or support for Mr. Aristide’s resignation. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, discussing the 2005 budget, told lawmakers: “Haiti is a very difficult issue right now. We are monitoring it very closely.”
Mr. Aristide was a parish priest in 1990 when he was elected president, winning overwhelmingly in an internationally supervised vote and gaining an almost mythic status among Haiti’s poor. Ousted in a military coup in 1991, Mr. Aristide was restored to power the next year by the Clinton administration and American troops.
The return of Mr. Aristide was a high point for pro-democracy advocates in Haiti and for his supporters in Washington who, like the Congressional Black Caucus, praised the Clinton administration for upholding democratic principle in a country of little strategic importance. But many Republicans, including some who are now in the current administration, disdained the intervention. Mr. Bush, as a presidential candidate, called it a misguided exercise in nation-building.
The intervention curbed a huge exodus of boat people bound for South Florida in often flimsy vessels. But after a decade and about $900 million in American development aid to Haiti, most officials and regional analysts agree that the country has made little progress.
Mr. Aristide has come under harsh criticism, and even some supporters voice dismay at his autocratic style. In elections in 2000, Mr. Aristide’s opponents disputed the victories of several legislators aligned with the president; the opponents then boycotted the vote later that year that re-elected Mr. Aristide. The dispute has effectively paralyzed the government, and Mr. Aristide has failed to reach out to critics with jobs or resources.
“Aristide has felt that his power was strong enough that he feels he doesn’t have to play the traditional Haitian political game,” said Robert Maguire, the director of international affairs at Trinity College in Washington, who is on friendly terms with Mr. Aristide. “He has alienated many, many people.”
Several groups have sought to broker peace arrangements, and the Bush administration says that its policy is to support the efforts of the Caribbean Community, or Caricom. But Representative Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat who was an ardent supporter of restoring Mr. Aristide, said this week that the administration needed a more hands-on approach to force a deal.
“There should be some international intervention to bring some type of peace accord,” said Mr. Rangel. He said he was not, however, in favor of new military action.
Most analysts agree that it is extremely unlikely that the Bush administration will send military forces to Haiti unless the violence grows worse or a refugee exodus appears likely.
“It’s hard to see the way out of this without military intervention,” said Rachel Neild, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights and policy group. “I don’t see the administration being in favor of that.”
One State Department official, briefing reporters this week, said the administration was determined “to exhaust every diplomatic option available, before moving on to another level.” Asked what “another level” might be, the official replied: “I wouldn’t want to speculate.”