WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard forcibly returned 15 Haitian boat people to their homeland Wednesday and prepared to repatriate 28 others as officials in Washington debated steps to speed the return of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The Coast Guard cutter Sitkinak docked in Port-au-Prince to return the 15 refugees, who were picked up Tuesday in a 20-foot sailboat off the northern coast of Haiti. U.S. officials consider the island too violent to land armed U.S. military trainers, but Administration policy is to return any Haitians fleeing the country for the United States.
In Washington, top Administration foreign policy officials met at the White House to consider ways to pressure leaders of the military coup that overthrew Aristide in 1991 to yield power. No new policies were adopted, aides said.
Officials also said there is now almost no chance that Aristide will assume power Saturday under an agreement that he and Haitian military leader Raoul Cedras signed in New York on July 3. Under terms of the so-called Governors Island agreement, Haiti's military rulers were to have stepped down Oct. 15 to clear the way for Aristide's return.
Administration officials took pains to downplay the significance of the Saturday deadline, so that the almost certain failure to meet it would not be portrayed as a defeat for American efforts to restore democracy to Haiti. The White House tactic now appears to be to take a low-key approach over the next several days to allow tentative steps at reconciliation to go forward in Haiti without the appearance of overt American meddling.
Aristide is to address the United Nations today and is expected to call for harsher sanctions against the military regime, which already is under a U.N.-enforced embargo on oil and arms shipments.
A senior White House official said that the Administration would be willing to support additional sanctions against the Haitian military leaders in hopes of accelerating their departures. However, no consideration is being given to using American military force to restore Aristide to power, officials said.
"We're going to keep the squeeze on and (enforce) the embargo. It's already brought some progress, and it's likely to bring more," the official said. "We're exploring other things to put on even more economic pressure."
Washington also is hoping for a breakthrough in several simultaneous negotiations under way in Haiti between the military forces of Lt. Gen. Cedras and Aristide's backers, represented by Prime Minister Robert Malval. But optimism continued to fade after talks set for Wednesday in Port-au-Prince were canceled and no new negotiations were scheduled.
The Haitian Parliament, with many of its members in hiding because they fear for their lives, failed to meet Wednesday for the second straight day to consider legislation to break up the military and police forces and grant amnesty to the officers involved in the Sept. 30, 1991, coup that ousted Aristide.
Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate failed to achieve a quorum, and the sessions were postponed until today. Even fewer deputies showed up than on Tuesday, despite predictions that some would emerge from seclusion to attend the parliamentary session.
In Riga, Latvia, Secretary of State Warren Christopher acknowledged that the Oct. 30 deadline for Aristide's return almost certainly will not be met. But he said it is more important "to focus on the results of democracy rather than to be fixed on a particular date."
"The important thing is to ensure that the return of Aristide will achieve harmony and tranquillity," Christopher told reporters as he prepared to return to Washington at the end of a weeklong trip to Russia and several other former Soviet states.
Christopher said that Aristide is willing to work with the Haitian opposition but that Washington is opposed to a continuing political role for the Haitian military.
"I would not contemplate and do not recommend that military forces be part of the new government," the secretary said. "That is not likely to be acceptable to Malval or Aristide."
Meanwhile, a summary of a U.S. Senate report obtained by the Associated Press said that Lt. Col. Michel-Joseph Francois, the Port-au-Prince police chief, receives and distributes $100 million or more annually in bribes for allowing Colombian cocaine to be shipped through Haiti.
The report also said that Francois controls the so-called attaches, the paramilitary thugs who are terrorizing pro-democracy forces in Haiti and whose demonstration on the docks of Port-au-Prince earlier this month forced an American warship carrying U.S. military trainers to turn away.
Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson contributed to this report.