WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has won a six-month reprieve before he confronts what may be inevitable -- that only military force can restore democratic rule to Haiti.
By agreeing to allow U.S. screening of Haitian refugees, Jamaica and the British-ruled Turks and Caicos Islands have provided the United States with a safety valve to prevent any rush of Haitian refugees from sailing to Florida.
At the same time, the president's special envoy, former Pennsylvania Rep. William H. Gray III, is spearheading an effort to squeeze Haiti's ruling military clique and its wealthy supporters economically.
The twin moves ease the political pressure on Mr. Clinton that built up in late spring, when supporters of the democratically elected Haitian president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, mounted a media campaign and well-known activist Randall Robinson went on a hunger strike.
But the Caribbean nations provided their shores for screening of political refugees for only six months, and Mr. Gray has set a similar time limit on his own efforts.
Thus, Mr. Clinton may have succeeded only in delaying a tough decision.
The administration is hoping that a tightened international embargo will persuade Haiti's three top military leaders -- the army commander, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras; the Port-au-Prince police chief, Michel Francois; and the chief of staff, Gen. Philippe Biamby -- to step down and allow Father Aristide to return from exile in the United States.
It pressured the Dominican Republic to police its border with Haiti to curb the smuggling of fuel into Haiti. The United States also has dispatched two shallow-draft vessels to patrol the shore for blockade-busting boats. These actions forced up the black-market price of gasoline this week by 25 percent, to $9 a gallon, but U.S. officials acknowledged that the Dominican border is still not effectively sealed.
In a step aimed at members of Haiti's business elite who support the military and profit from the embargo, the administration plans to expand the list of people whose U.S. assets will be frozen and who will be denied visas to the United States.
But these sanctions fall short of a total squeeze. Although the United States and several other countries are considering a commercial air embargo that sharply curbs travel by the military and its supporters, this has not been imposed.
Similarly, the Clinton administration has persuaded other countries only to "consider" the kind of asset freeze already undertaken by the United States.
The results of the new refugee policy also are uncertain. Under the administration's new plans, Haitians seeking asylum in the United States will be screened aboard ships in Kingston harbor in Jamaica and on a 5-acre site on West Turk Island. Those who demonstrate a justified fear of persecution in Haiti will be taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being admitted to the United States or some other country.
"The refugee arrangement could be easily overwhelmed," said Arthur C. Helton, an advocate for Haitian refugees who directs migration programs for the Open Society Institute.
The next six months could offer Mr. Clinton not just an interlude but time to plug loopholes in the economic sanctions and build domestic and international support for the use of military force. The credible threat of force might prevent Mr. Clinton from actually having to use it.
Already, some Latin and Caribbean governments seem to be softening in their opposition to military intervention as frustration grows throughout the hemisphere over the world's inability to restore democracy in Haiti.
"If there were an invasion with multilateral color to it, such as the Argentines, Jamaicans and the French, with the United States clearly in the lead, you would probably not see members of the OAS banging the table protesting this," an official of the Organization of American States said last week.
Argentina's ambassador to the United States, Raul Granillo Ocampo, said in an interview yesterday that although more could be done now to enforce the sanctions, his country, and perhaps others, eventually would support or join in the use of force as a "last resort" to restore democracy in Haiti.
But the United States appears to be making no move to mobilize international support for an invasion or to persuade a reluctant United Nations Security Council to give such an action the necessary international cover.
The Clinton administration and Congress remain sharply divided. The debate focuses not on whether military action would succeed -- Haiti's lightly armed force of 7,000 would be no match for a U.S.-led invasion force -- but on what kind of occupation would follow.
The only military action being discussed is the dispatch of an international team of soldiers to train and professionalize Haiti's military once the current leadership departs.
Meanwhile, former Maryland Rep. Michael Barnes, an Aristide adviser, said glumly, "I pray that the people of Haiti don't have to wait six months to have their reign of terror ended."