WASHINGTON -- Exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to the White House seeking a concession yesterday but made one instead -- and it is one that the Clinton administration believes will help restore him to power.
The State Department, under both President George Bush and President Clinton, had urged Father Aristide to agree on some sort of amnesty for the coup leaders who ousted him. To the Americans, this was a huge sticking point. Short of using force, they couldn't see how they were going to persuade coup leaders to step down if that meant being killed or sent to prison.
"We have asked for the departure of the coup leaders, that they no longer be the head of the army, not necessarily that they either be in jail or have to leave the country," Father Aristide said while sitting with Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office.
A clearly pleased Mr. Clinton interjected, "That's exactly what came out of our meeting. That sort of attitude on the part of President Aristide is the very thing that should enable us to resolve this in a peaceful way."
Father Aristide and Haitians working on his behalf have insisted that the coup leaders be given a firm date on which he must be returned to power. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., has suggested May 31, a date Father Aristide embraced.
But Mr. Clinton reiterated to Father Aristide yesterday the administration's view that this fixation on a date was counterproductive. Instead, Mr. Clinton promised to mount "a much more aggressive" negotiating effort.
That effort, Mr. Clinton said, includes a promise of $1 billion in financial aid to Haiti, administered through the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank; the dispatching of a special ambassador to Haiti; and a warning that if democracy -- and Father Aristide -- are not restored, "stronger measures" would follow.
The man being sent by Mr. Clinton to jump-start the negotiations is Lawrence Pezzullo, a former career diplomat highly respected by Father Aristide's side.
"This was President Carter's ambassador to Nicaragua," said Mark Levy, a spokesman in Father Aristide's office. "He's the one who told [Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio] Somoza he had to leave."
Asked by a reporter if he was satisfied with these measures, a smiling Father Aristide replied, "Totally."
"I think the message we're sending out there is clear," he added.
Neither Mr. Clinton nor his foreign policy advisers would provide specifics on what the "stronger measures" would entail, but in remarks afterward Father Aristide sounded more than satisfied.
"Every Haitian should be extremely happy about what has happened today," he said.
But outside the White House, some of the hundreds of Haitian demonstrators -- most from New York City and all Aristide supporters -- sounded skeptical.
"No way in the world you can give amnesty to well-known criminals, well-known outlaws," said Paul Tulce, 30, a Haitian who lives in New York. "It would be like promoting murder."
Father Aristide, elected with 67 percent of the vote, was ousted in a bloody coup and took refuge abroad while the Bush administration began negotiating for his return.
That was 1 1/2 years ago.
Under Mr. Bush, the State Department proceeded gingerly because it harbored doubts about Father Aristide, was unable to persuade the coup leaders to step down in the face of almost certain retaliation, and believed that Father Aristide's return might precipitate a blood bath.