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Into the Haitian Swamp


That swooshing sound you hear is moral and political credibility oozing out of U.S. policy on Haiti. What seemed last October as a real Washington commitment to the return of Haiti's popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has deteriorated into the forced repatriation of terrified boat people to the untender mercies of the putschists who toppled Mr. Aristide.

Disappearing in this sad spectacle is the once-vibrant hope that with U.S. backing the Organization of American States would at last have the moxie and muscle to intervene, when needed, to restore democracy anywhere in the hemisphere.

It is embarrassing to witness State Department spokesmen pretend there is no danger to repatriates in a land where scores of Aristide supporters have been killed since the September 1990 coup. It is dismaying to watch U.S. officials resort to Catch 22 legalisms under which Haitian refugees are denied United Nations protections for those fleeing to a foreign country because the U.S. Coast Guard makes sure they never reach U.S. soil.

Now the Supreme Court has been drawn into this swamp. After ruling 6-3 that the Bush administration could indeed take Haitians interned at Guantanamo Bay and ship them home, the high tribunal has agreed to hear appeals Friday from lawyers for the refugees who claim they have evidence that returnees face retribution. Flat denials that this is so from Foggy Bottom and the White House leave the U.S. government woefully exposed if the contrary is proven. Meantime, another 1,000 Haitians are being herded back.

One has to ask how this policy squares with U.S. pressure on Hong Kong to accept Asian boat people who are "economic" rather than "political" refugees -- especially when Washington does cartwheels to make the distinction in Haiti. Or how tens of thousands of East Europeans and Asians are admitted to this country while a big deal is made about some 15,000 Haitians. The administration opens itself to charges of racism and of cynical manipulation to protect its political flanks in Florida, a key presidential election state.

While we harbor a forlorn hope that the Supreme Court will tell the Bush administration to reverse course, we are left to wonder how the Haitian policy fiasco is registering throughout the hemisphere. Are our neighbors to get the impression that Washington is all for empowering the United Nations to intervene in far-off places but would deny the OAS this power right on our doorstep? Does this mean that when it comes to the hemisphere, U.S. unilateralism is triumphant?

If so, it contradicts this administration's promising precedents in Central America and its protestations that democracy must not only be encouraged but defended in the Americas.

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