After almost four agonizing months of diplomatic maneuvering, Haiti's political crisis is no closer to an end than when a coup ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept. 30. But the suffering it is causing the Haitian people is worsening. It's time for Washington to end the heartbreak.
A good first step was Monday's recall of the U.S. ambassador to protest a police attack on a peaceful political meeting. That got the attention of Haiti's current rulers, a poisonous mix of the old elite and military men who toppled Aristide because he threatened their power. But will it be enough to get them to buy the compromise brokered by the Organization of American States to bring Aristide back?
The OAS has properly taken the lead in trying to end the crisis, imposing economic sanctions on Haiti and playing intermediary between Aristide and coup leaders. The OAS had crafted an agreement to reinstate Aristide as president, with Rene Theodore, a moderate and pragmatic communist acceptable to coup leaders, as prime minister.
But the deal collapsed, and the unwarranted, bloody attack on a political meeting called by Theodore last Saturday suggests why. The gathering was broken up by renegade policemen who oppose Aristide's return. Theodore fears Haiti "is being held hostage by thugs."
Uncontrolled violence is one reason Haitians are fleeing their country in unprecedented numbers. On Monday the Coast Guard intercepted 1,100 Haitian boat people off Florida, a record for one day. And the 10 cutters on patrol reported "numerous sailboats on the horizon."
Consider this State Department statistic: Of 12,660 Haitians picked up at sea since the crisis began, almost 3,200 have been found to have "plausible claim to asylum"--meaning they might be in danger if they returned home. This is a much higher than normal rate of legitimate claims. That suggests it's time for Washington to take a step it has avoided so far in the crisis: allowing all Haitian refugees to remain in the United States for the duration.
U.S. officials resist this move, arguing that it could encourage economic as well as political refugees to flee. That is a risk, but it's worth taking. Like recalling the ambassador, it would send a clear signal that the United States has grown weary of the bloody games that Haiti's elites are playing to prevent a popularly elected government from being restored. It would put Washington more firmly on the side of the Haitian people and show that it intends to hang tough until the thugs are out and Haiti's legitimate government is back in.