HAITI, a nation of 6.3 million people southeast of Cuba, has experienced two centuries of repression and poverty. For 29 years Haitians endured the brutal and corrupt rule of the Duvalier family. While crushing all opposition, the Duvaliers enriched themselves and a small economic elite. By 1986, when a popular uprising forced "Baby Doc" Duvalier to flee, Haiti had become the poorest country in the hemisphere. In addition to poverty, Haiti's dictators left behind a military with little respect for human rights and democracy. Since the Duvaliers' departure, the military has opposed efforts to create a democratic government and a more equitable economy.
Haiti held its first democratic election in December 1990. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, was elected on a platform of democratization, military reform, and economic fairness. In September 1991, Mr. Aristide was overthrown by the armed forces.
The government has killed and imprisoned hundreds of people. Haiti's economy has been weakened further by a trade embargo imposed after the coup by the Organization of American States (OAS). Poverty and repression have caused tens of thousands to flee.
Diplomatic efforts to restore democracy have failed. Haiti's military leaders have refused to permit Aristide to return to power. Aristide has refused to negotiate with the military-installed government of Prime Minister Marc Bazin. Diplomatic attempts to forge an agreement putting Aristide back into office and providing the military guarantees against reprisals have failed.
US interests. Haiti's crisis poses two challenges for United States foreign policy. The first is to our commitment to democracy. Haiti is one of only two countries in the hemisphere (the other is Cuba) now ruled by an unelected government. Second, a prolonged crisis will cause a steady flow of refugees. These two challenges are linked: The refugee flow cannot be halted without a resolution of the political crisis.
Economic embargo. Under the OAS embargo, which the US supports, member nations are required to suspend all exports to Haiti except food and medicine. Haitian government assets are frozen. The embargo has not worked. Goods are entering Haiti from several nations. Countries outside the hemisphere are not observing the OAS embargo.
The refugee crisis and US policy. Although not strong enough to squeeze Haiti's military rulers, the porous embargo is still strong enough to harm poor Haitians through increased unemployment and inflation. Economic stress has motivated many Haitians to flee the country. Earlier this year, thousands crowded the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and other US facilities. To slow the refugee exodus, President Bush last April ordered all Haitians reaching US territory aboard vessels to return to Haiti wi thout immigration screening. US policy previously required that safe haven be given to anyone who could demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution if forced to return home.
The policy of returning all Haitian refugees raises several concerns. First, because this policy precludes screening, it does not enable a distinction to be made between economic refugees, who are not eligible for asylum, and people who might be persecuted upon return to Haiti. The new policy also appears to violate international law, which obligates the US to take in asylum-seekers. Second, the policy makes it more difficult for the US to persuade other countries temporarily to accept refugees in emerge ncies. Third, the new policy suggests that the US is evading responsibility for economic pain caused by an embargo it supports.
Refugee advocates have challenged Mr. Bush's policy in court, where so far it has been upheld. Calling for a change in the policy, President-elect Clinton has suggested that Haitians should have a chance to apply for asylum. The policy must be changed carefully. A simple reversal of the policy could provoke a mass exodus.
What should the US do? No country can guarantee a return to civilian rule in Haiti, but the US can do more to promote a solution to the crisis. First, diplomacy needs to be reinvigorated, and the US must take the lead. Some of Aristide's statements and positions may have made it more difficult to mediate a solution. A settlement may require him to be more flexible. A UN observer force could build a sense of confidence and security, spurring negotiations.
Second, the embargo should be strengthened. The UN Security Council should consider a worldwide embargo. Economic pressure could also be focused more sharply on the coup leaders and their supporters, perhaps by freezing their foreign assets. If goods continue to flow into Haiti, additional steps should be considered, such as using the US Navy to tighten enforcement of the embargo. A stiffer embargo would impose additional pain, but it could end Haiti's crisis more rapidly.
Third, US policy on Haitian refugees should be changed. The US and other countries have an obligation to provide temporary shelter and care for refugees until some degree of stability is restored. Few Haitians will qualify for political asylum and US residence, but all should have an opportunity to apply. To discourage large-scale departures, we should state clearly that those not granted asylum will be returned home when the crisis ends. We should upgrade our refugee facilities and press other countries
to take in more Haitians.
Finally, if civilian rule is restored, the US should lead a long-term effort to strengthen Haitian democracy and the economy. Haiti will need help reforming the military, creating economic growth, and improving social services. Valuable assistance can be provided at comparatively low cost.