WASHINGTON -- Hours after the Supreme Court lifted an injunction that barred the forced return of Haitian exiles, the United States began sending refugees back to Haiti yesterday from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
About 150 Haitians boarded a Coast Guard cutter yesterday afternoon for the trip to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, said Lt. Cmdr. Gordon Hume, spokesman for the Joint Task Force managing the Haitian exile crisis.
Haitians have been crowding into boats to flee a nation in political and economic turmoil since the military coup against the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept. 30.
At least two-thirds of those who have fled have not been permitted to apply for asylum in the United States because the Bush administration considers them economic migrants rather than political refugees.
More than 10,440 Haitians are in custody at Guantanamo, and more asylum-seekers are on cutters offshore. The task force spokesman said the first Haitians to return yesterday were exiles who said they were "ready to go back." Another 400 had returned voluntarily through the United Nations.
The repatriations, by means of the 12-to-14-hour boat trip from Cuba to Haiti, come within a week of the Bush administration's condemnation of growing political violence in Haiti and the recall of the United States ambassador, Alvin P. Adams Jr., for a policy review.
Mr. Adams' recall followed an attack by policemen in civilian clothes on participants in a political meeting on Jan. 25. The meeting had been called by Rene Theodore, who was nominated to be prime minister in a compromise that was seen just a few weeks ago as the first step to the restoration of civilian government after difficult negotiations.
A political solution to Haiti's problems no longer seems possible, at least in the short term, officials in the administration and the Organization of American States appear to agree.
An economic embargo imposed by the United States and other members of the OAS has added to the problems of Haitians, whose nation is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
The embargo was intended to cripple or at least inconvenience the military government in the hope that it would be more amenable to negotiating an end to the crisis.
But many Haitians say that the embargo has struck hardest at ordinary citizens, who are without public transportation because of a shortage of fuel and have lost jobs as factories close.
Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said in an interview Friday that the embargo is "punishing those who are the most vulnerable."
Repatriation of Haitians from Guantanamo resumed after a month of delays caused by repeated injunctions against the forced return of Haitians picked up at sea.
Concerned that as many as 20,000 more Haitians were preparing to leave their country, the Bush administration sought an emergency order from the Supreme Court to lift the ban imposed by a judge in Miami.
Without comment, the high court voted 6-3 late Friday night to lift the stay. Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas opposed the action.
Earlier in the day it appeared that the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta had ruled in favor of the administration on the constitutional merits of forced repatriations, overturning a lower-court ruling. But hours later, the Atlanta court rescinded its order, saying that it had been issued prematurely.
While the Supreme Court's action permitted the government to begin the deportations, it did not decide the repatriation issue on its merits.