PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Port-au-Prince, Haiti.--As Sauver Christian hammers galvanized spikes into the frame of a 42-foot sailboat on the beach at Leogane, an hour's drive south of the capital, he's focused on the inauguration of Bill Clinton in Washington. Like most Haitians he expects Mr. Clinton will reverse the U.S. policy of turning back boats filled with refugees and, instead, allow them to land in Florida.
And he hopes Mr. Clinton will help the widely-loved, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide return to power in Haiti. "Under Aristide we were free to talk, to live like men," the white-haired carpenter said with a wistful smile. "Now they can beat us, we can't say anything." He crossed his wrists in the universal sign of captivity.
Mr. Clinton said Thursday he is "profoundly moved by the dangers involved" and cited recent reports that 400 Haitians may have already drowned at sea, in part, because they believed the president-elect's campaign promise to change U.S. policies toward Haitian boat people. But he said he would continue the policy of returning them home.
He and President Aristide urged Haitians to remain at home while efforts are made for a political solution to the crisis. These could include U.N. observers to monitor human rights; protection for boat people returned to Haiti; easier application procedures for political asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti; and an agreement by the military to recognize Mr. Aristide as president if he drops demands for their punishment. But it's unclear if these policies and plans will deter the wave of people ready to set sail.
Boat-builder Christian (his name is changed to protect him) and many others, including diplomats and Haitian journalists, expect the start of the Clinton term to launch an armada of boats filled with Haitians seeking to enter the United States.
"I think tens of thousands are ready to go," said a source with the Organization of American States delegation here. "It will start with a few boats," each laden with up to 200 or 300 people. If they are able to reach Florida, then the rest will put to sea.
The OAS official said 1,200 boats are under construction -- double the normal winter production -- in the hope that the United States will stop turning back refugee boats.
President Aristide, in an interview in Washington last month, said that the exodus would rival the 125,000 Cubans who reached Florida in a few weeks in the 1981 Mariel boat-lift.
That boat-lift paralyzed South Florida and spilled over into riots among Cubans detained in Arkansas -- riots some say they led to then-Governor Clinton's electoral defeat. The Clinton transition team is reportedly now struggling to find a solution to the Haitian problem before it spills over into a tragedy at sea (from five to 50 percent of boat people drown, said a Coast Guard source), an immigration tidal wave on shore, an anti-immigration backlash in Florida and an international humiliation.
Mr. Christian and other Haitians have prayed for Mr. Clinton's victory and hold a quasi-religious belief that he will bring back Mr. Aristide and improve their lives. This is because Mr. Clinton said several times during the campaign that the Bush administration policy of returning all boat people to Haiti is wrong.
Refugee advocates, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have strongly criticized the U.S. decision in May 1991 to halt all screening to identify political refugees and simply ship all boat people to Port-au-Prince. The change in policy came after 40,000 Haitians were intercepted en route to the U.S. and hundreds more were setting forth each week.
The wave of boat people followed the coup in September 1991 in which the military, backed by the tiny mulatto elite, ousted the popular Mr. Aristide after seven months in office as Haiti's first freely elected president. The New York-based human rights group Americas Watch says that since the coup over 1,500 people have been killed in a wave of repression against supporters of Mr. Aristide.
Father Antione Adrien, who represents President Aristide in Haiti, said in an interview here that the number killed since the coup is probably three times higher than the 1,500 bodies counted by human rights workers because little information about murders is coming from the rural areas where 80 percent of Haiti's seven million people live.
He said that 30 bodies were found in the capital's streets in December, marking an intensification of the purges.
The violence, combined with the endemic poverty in the hemisphere's poorest nation, sparked the exodus by sailboat. When the U.S. was unable to find neighboring countries willing ++ to house them in camps, the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba was turned into a tent city where thousands were held for months. Under a new asylum screening system, about 10,000 won the right to enter the United States and apply for political asylum. The rest were ruled economic migrants and shipped back home on U.S. Coast Guard cutters under a 1981 accord between the U.S. and Haiti.
Fearing that the high acceptance rate of 25 percent had become a magnet for refugees, in May the Bush administration decided to simply intercept all boats at sea and ship the people directly back to Port-au-Prince.
Father Adrien estimated there are 400,000 people in hiding, their lives disrupted and their families reduced to poverty. Thousands more have lost jobs because assembly plants closed, even after the U.S. agreed to exempt them from the embargo as a humanitarian gesture, to save the jobs.
Continuing instability has plagued Haiti since the 1986 uprising that overthrew the 29 year dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. After four coups and six governments, most businessmen moved their plants to the Dominican Republic and other cheap labor markets in the
After the 1991 coup, the OAS voted to impose an embargo on all but humanitarian items to force the military to reinstate Mr. Aristide. But the leaky embargo has largely failed to stop shipments of gasoline and other vital goods because Europe says it can't embargo trade with a former colony.
Indeed, the port is so full of ships flying Russian and Scandinavian flags that they wait at anchor to unload. The streets of the capital are crowded with merchants, food is plentiful in shops, and there are no lines for gasoline.
But the value of the Haitian gourde has fallen by half since the coup, to 12 to the U.S. dollar, making food, medicine and everything else rise in cost. The embargo's impact on the poor has been heavy. Malnutrition is said to be increasing, and deaths from preventable or curable diseases such as pneumonia and dysentery have taken an ever-higher toll.
The rising cost of gasoline, which doubled in price with all other goods, has led to increased deforestation as peasants tear the last trees from Haiti's barren and eroded slopes to make charcoal for cooking.
While merchants were unable to sell their mangoes, coffee and other agricultural exports abroad at the start of the embargo, hungry Haitians were unable to afford to buy them and they rotted in the fields, wrote Jerry Tardieu, a Haitian businessman -- and teacher, in his recent book "Embargo Sur Haiti -- Les Premiers Consequences." Lately, however, businessmen have found ways to get around the embargo by replacing the U.S. market -- formerly the biggest -- with European markets and by routing products through third countries for reshipment.
Yet many poor in Haiti said they want to tighten the embargo, while wealthy businessmen and supporters of the military oppose it.
"The Haitian people don't ask for food -- they ask for justice, security," said Mr. Aristide. "They say: 'Don't arrest me, don't beat me. Give me a chance to be free.' That's why they voted for me. They knew I didn't have millions to give them but they would finally be able to live with dignity and respect."
He said that the flow of boat people to the U.S. largely stopped during his administration.
The U.S. government, which at first strongly supported the return of Mr. Aristide, soon backed off and gave credibility to reports by the Haitian elite that Mr. Aristide had violated human rights by allowing his supporters to "necklace" with burning tires persons suspected of supporting the old dictators.
Mr. Aristide strongly denies this and says that to compare the "3,000 people killed since the coup" with any violations during his seven months is to "try to hide the body behind a thumb."
America's watch said in a report that "army violence and repression . . . within the first few days had dwarfed the abuses that had taken place during President Aristide's eight months in office."
Various sources said from two to 25 such murders took place during Mr. Aristide's rule, but indications are that they were done by mobs, not government forces.
Mr. Aristide says he rejects a violent uprising similar to the ones that ousted the Duvaliers in 1986 and General Prosper Avril in 1990. He also rejects an international armed intervention to disarm the 7,000 man army and restore him to power. He supports the request by the OAS to the United Nation in November, to join the embargo and force the military to accept Mr. Aristide's return.
Bill Clinton has only a few weeks in which to avert a massive boat-lift by presenting a policy that can convince the Haitian people that he can help them end the repression, restore their beloved Mr. Aristide and set them on an economically-upward path. The biggest obstacle toward such a policy is the apparently implacable hatred aimed at Mr. Aristide and his egalitarian goals by the 2,000 rich ensconced in the hills above the city, and the domineering army and police -- long accustomed to ruling with the baton and rifle.
Ben Barber is a Washington-based free-lance journalist who has reported from Haiti since 1980.