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Haiti Could Become a Pawn in US Politics

GEORGE BUSH, in easing the United States embargo against Haiti early last month, is walking a tightrope between domestic pressures and international resolve to restore civilian rule under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

It has been more than five months since the democratically-elected Aristide was overthrown by the Haitian military and the US and the Organization of American States (OAS) imposed an economic embargo designed to drive the military back to the barracks.

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Not much has changed since last fall although the Bush administration has now relaxed the US embargo, under severe pressure from the US business community, and the OAS helped broker a deal last week designed to return President Aristide and end the trade embargo. While the Haitian Army seems pleased with the pact, many doubt that Aristide will ever return. In the words of Eudrice Raymond, a Haitian senator, "it would be surrealistic to believe that he can return by June 30, or any other specific date for

that matter."

At present, President Bush can afford to insist that continued pressure on the Haitian military and economic elites combined with the recent Washington agreement will help return Aristide. However, if domestic and international events change, the president may feel he has to act more forcefully - with or without the OAS.

What does the president do if the Haitian military rejects the agreement and, in an effort to hang on to political power, begins to kill hundreds of repatriated Haitians, mostly followers of Aristide? Can the president withstand demands from Congress, segments of the Republican Party, and the Haitian immigrant community in the US for a multinational invasion if Aristide remains frozen in exile? In policy terms, the president has three options:

The military option. Although the US Marines ruled Haiti for 20 years in the early part of the century, US military involvement in a Caribbean island in a presidential election year is high-stakes policy. US troops would not be welcome in Haiti, but the military option can't be ruled out.

There are two ways the military option could be implemented to restore democracy to Haiti. The unilateral "Noriega Option" worked in Panama because of the saliency of drugs as a domestic policy issue, the demonization of Noriega, the presence of a large US military force close by, the ineffectiveness of the OAS, and physical threats to Americans living in Panama. None of these factors are present in Haiti.

The second policy option is a multilateral invasion including token OAS forces.

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Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson admits that the economic sanctions against Haiti have been ineffective and has advocated the formation of an OAS-backed military force to deal with future coups in the hemisphere. This would be a new role for the OAS and may be too risky for most of its members.

With both Pat Buchanan and David Duke beating the anti-immigration drum in the early presidential primaries, Bush is less likely to feel that he has much to gain from a military option in Haiti.

A return to the OAS. Domestic political events and a worsening of the human-rights situation in Haiti may generate demands that the US turn again to the inter-American system, particularly in light of the recently failed coup against the president of democratic Venezuela.

The problem with the recent pact signed in Washington is that Aristide continues to seek the removal and punishment of coup leaders. The current round of multilateral diplomacy may be as far as the OAS can go in trying to solve the Haitian crisis. Moreover, Bush's decision to weaken the trade embargo has raised suspicions of Washington's level of commitment to democracy in Haiti among key members of the OAS.

Playing the domestic card. Bush's weakening of the US economic embargo against Haiti plays well among American business elites with trade ties to Haiti and may offset the Buchanan juggernaut in the early primaries. But this latest policy decision also carries considerable negative political consequences.

Bush might be tempted to get out front on the Haitian issue by making a televised address to the nation. This would show the president as the chief executive concerned about the preservation of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the hemisphere.

The downside is that such an approach would raise national and international expectations without guaranteeing that the Haitians will ever see democracy restored. Also, Bush is not at his rhetorical best when he does not have a dictator to denounce.

Whatever option the president chooses in dealing with the Haitian conundrum, his decision will rest largely on how he can gain domestically, particularly if he does poorly in the early primaries. With Bush touting his successes in Kuwait and Panama as examples of presidential leadership, an invasion of Haiti may be tempting.

In the current political climate, Bush's Democratic challengers would be hard-pressed to oppose a US invasion of Haiti, fearing a backlash from an electorate that has grown accustomed to forceful solutions to regional conflicts.

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