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US Committed to a Free Haiti

BY threatening American military advisers, a small group of Haitian ``thugs'' are capitalizing on the debate now raging in the United States to retreat from its commitment to restore democracy in Haiti.

Violence and intimidation are the everyday tools of political discourse for the military officers and civilian elites who have bled Haiti dry. Surely the people who invaded a church service to murder a supporter of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide are capable of threatening US troops to test Washington's will.

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Unlike Somalia, however, the US cannot cut and run from Haiti because the problems there will follow us home. It would be a terrible mistake for President Clinton and Congress to use the furor over Somalia, or even the public outcry that will inevitably arise over the Haitian situation, as cover to pull back from the commitment to Haiti. We must stay the course there because the stakes are much higher, the conditions are different, and a solution is within our reach.

The most obvious difference is geography. While Somalia is thousands of miles away, Haiti is our neighbor. Historically, the US has taken an active interest in this island nation of 6.5 million people.

Today we are linked to Haiti by refugees who risk their lives to flee political repression and economic poverty for refuge in the US. We cannot disengage from involvement in Haiti; the refugees will not allow it. We are part of the political crisis there and very much affected by the course it takes.

The second contrast with Somalia is that Haiti has a government. It is not a question of choosing sides among warlords with equally dubious claims to power. Rather, the international mission in Haiti is to restore Mr. Aristide to the presidency to which he was popularly elected in December 1990 (receiving 67.5 percent of the vote), and from which he was illegally deposed in September 1991.

Aristide is recognized throughout the world as Haiti's legitimate leader. He is the first democratic president in the country's history, and he continues to be enormously popular among the people who elected him. Without Aristide in office, Haitians are denied the fundamental political right - recognized as central to the new international order of the post-cold-war world - to choose their own leaders. Without Aristide in office, there is no possibility of resolving the issues that drive Haitians to the US.

The third reason for Washington to stay the course in Haiti is that we have already invested our resources and national honor in the Aristide government. US pressure was instrumental in forcing the army to hold the elections that he won. Following his overthrow, first President Bush and then President Clinton, with the support of Congress, worked to return him to power.

Fourth, there is a clearly established multilateral arrangement for returning Aristide to power. The US has been a part of it from the beginning. The United Nations and the Organization of American States - both long condemned for failing to act when democratic governments are threatened - responded to the overthrow of Aristide with a full-scale economic embargo that forced the de facto government of Gen. Raoul Cedras to sign an agreement that committed him to step aside for Aristide's return by Oct. 30. US, Canadian, French, and Venezuelan military personnel, in noncombatant roles, are the guarantors of this agreement.

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Clinton was right to withdraw US troops Oct. 12 and to ask the UN to reimpose stiff economic sanctions. But at some point he will have to put the US in harm's way, or this small gang of Haitian thugs will have succeeded in exploiting America to achieve their dictatorial goals. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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