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Aristide's possible return raises Haiti hopes.

Clinton eager to keep boat people at bay

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Early outlines of a deal between this nation's military rulers and exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to restore him to power may be in the making, according to informed observers here.

Provisions may call for:

* Army recognition of Aristide as president for the rest of his five-year term.

* An "amnesty" for the military, responsible for at least 3,000 deaths since its coup, and for Aristide's lavalas (avalanche) supporters.

* U.S. aid to "professionalize" the 7,000-man army and separate it from the police.

* Ending the Organization of American States embargo on imports from and exports to Haiti, an embargo that has failed to stop the flow of goods but doubled and tripled prices, hurting the poorest.

* Resuming major U.S., French and Canadian aid and gradually "transforming the |observer' mission into a technical aid mission."

These elements, according to the OAS's Carlos Jara, who represented the organization here from 1978 to 1990, could restore Aristide to power in this, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

But Raymond Lafontant Jr., executive director of the Association of Industries of Haiti, countered that a conditional "deal" would be "only a cosmetic solution, not a profound solution."

"We are committed to the OAS resolution for the restoration of democracy and the return of Aristide," said the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat here, Deputy Chief of Mission Leslie Alexander, who has run the U.S. embassy since Ambassador Alvin Adams departed last summer. "Aristide's got to be restored to his functions."

Aristide, in a Jan. 9 interview with the Voice of America's Creole service, seemed to agree with the deal now being discussed to restore him. But he would not set a date for his return to Haiti.

Observers here say few Haitians think U.S. diplomats - or most Americans - understand the awful split in this country between the wealthy, mulatto "elite" and the poor. Journalist-politician Aubelin Jolicoeur said, "Everyone here is guilty; I blame no one. But Haitians now are torturing the country, burying it."

Lafontant pointed out, "There are a million Haitians abroad" - mostly in the United States and Canada - "and they are sending signals here, along with remittances that average about $200 a month. The Haitians are confronting the modern world without producing for it. So they go on a boat.

"In Aristide there is hope. Some may not like the guy, but at least he's their hope. That's more important that starting off on a boat, so if he comes back they'll try to stay in the country."

Even some of the elite agree an Aristide restoration could mean more stability. Architect Gerard Fombrun, for example, said: "They're killing us with the embargo."

Indeed, the main graffiti spread on walls throughout this city is "Aba enbago," Creole for "Down with the embargo." Lafontant said, "The average wage is now about 20 gourdes for eight hours of work" - a gourde today is worth slightly less than 10 U.S. cents.

Meanwhile, then-President-elect Bill Clinton's switch of policy on Haiti's "boat people," six days before his inauguration, came as no surprise to most of the 6.5 million people living in Haiti

At a restaurant in the upscale suburb of Petionville, Genevieve Dominique, a chic, well-to-do woman who owns homes in both Haiti and the United States, remarked: "We're just regarded as six million niggers." Those listening to her winced at the word but nodded agreement.

Clinton in his presidential campaign had raised Haitians' hopes that he would reverse the Bush administration policy of quickly "repatriating" Haitians caught in leaky sailboats on the 700-mile voyage from Haiti to Florida. From the Sept. 30, 1991, military coup that overthrew Aristide to the middle of this month, about 40,000 Haitians were known to have set off in sailboats for Florida.

Clinton had promised, during his campaign, to give fleeing Haitians refuge and to consider them for political asylum. But just before his inaugural he said he would continue the Bush policy of forcibly returning the boat people, at least temporarily. It is a policy first conceived and put in place under an agreement, between former President Ronald Reagan and then President-for-Life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1981.

In the town of Leogane, a few miles south of this capital of more than a million people, are hustlers selling spaces on these boats at $500 to $600 a head down to as little as $30 to $40 to fill up the boats.

Olivier Adam, assistant representative of the United Nations Development Program here, said "thousands and thousands of refugees are just waiting to go. We need a quick solution."

But Clinton's words do not suggest a quick solution. He said, "I will end the practice (of repatriation) when I am fully confident I can do so in a way that does not contribute to a human tragedy. I still believe the policy should be changed, but I don't think we can do it immediately."

The Reverend Raymond Desjardins, a French-Canadian priest who has lived in Haiti 12 years and is pastor of St. Gerard Church, said: "If Aristide comes back and the government's a democracy, the flow of boat people will stop. I think there's a chance of this; the pressure from the U.S., Canada, Venezuela is mounting rapidly and Clinton is looking for an answer. But the repression here is still so high some people can't be let on the streets."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy has had 9,500 visa applications in the past year, of which 298 were approved and 132 applicants have actually departed. That compares with a typical Coast Guard return of 236 refugees to the dock here on Jan. 11.

The refugees were plucked off a foundering 60-foot sailboat. An embassy official said that, "with the Clinton changeover, there'll probably be more boats, but not right away. If the door is open just a little, the poor will wait to see how many make it."
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Author:Steif, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 29, 1993
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