WASHINGTON -- Panama withdrew its promise of haven to 10,000 Haitian boat people yesterday, dealing an embarrassing new blow to President Clinton and increasing pressure for U.S. military action to remove Haiti's dictatorship and stem the exodus of refugees.
The Clinton administration vowed to continue offering safety to refugees without Panama's help, while trying to keep more boat people from entering the United States.
It won an agreement from Grenada to house some of them there, and officials said the tent city at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,would be expanded beyond its capacity of 12,500.
But the administration also broadened its definition of those who would qualify for haven, virtually guaranteeing a continuous outflow that could strain available facilities.
Rather than having to demonstrate a "well-founded fear" of persecution on their return, the refugees will be given shelter if they merely affirm their fear on a questionnaire.
Panama's lame-duck president, Guillermo Endara, had reached agreement with U.S. officials last weekend to accept up to 10,000 boat people. It was understood by the United States that the refugees would be housed first at U.S. bases in the Canal Zone and then transferred to an island off the Pacific coast.
But Mr. Endara objected yesterday to the use of the U.S. bases and also said he wanted a separate agreement with the United Nations.
"Because of the national situation and the growing problems of understanding, I have preferred to withdraw my offer," Mr. Endara said. "I regret what happened with the government of the United States, but the result . . . is not due to us."
The real reason, apparently, was strong public opposition to the deal in Panama. A phone call from Vice President Al Gore failed to persuade Mr. Endara to change his mind, and Mr. Gore informed President Clinton, who was in Naples, Italy, yesterday to prepare for the Group of Seven economic summit.
The setback was the latest in a series of U.S. efforts to control the Haitian refugee flow while pressuring Haiti's military rulers to step aside and allow the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president who was overthrown by the military in September 1991.
Panama's rejection was particularly stinging because it was a U.S. invasion in late 1989 that resulted in Mr. Endara's being installed as president. Mr. Clinton had personally obtained Mr. Endara's support in the Haitian crisis in a phone call Tuesday.
"Building a network"
A deflated-looking William H. Gray III, Mr. Clinton's top adviser on Haiti, kept his anger in check yesterday.
hTC "We regret that Panama has had to withdraw its offer," Mr. Gray said at a State Department briefing. "Nonetheless, we will continue forward with our policy.
"Panama was an important part of it, but we are in the process of building a network to provide a response to the surge of refugees caused by the deterioration of human rights in Haiti, and we have agreements in principle with Antigua, Dominica, and today Grenada also agreed in principle."
Refugees have been picked up in the seas off Haiti at a rate of more than 1,000 a day as economic sanctions and repression by the military dictatorship have heightened misery in the Caribbean nation.
Earlier this week, the White House tried to discourage the flow by announcing that none of those picked up at sea would be eligible to seek residence in the United States. Only those processed inside Haiti will be eligible for political asylum here.
More liberal standards
Instead, the administration offered haven at Caribbean locations and Guantanamo Bay.
But as outlined yesterday by Mr. Gray, the standards for receiving haven outside the United States are much more liberal than those for getting political asylum.
As a result, few, if any, Haitians picked up at sea are likely to be forcibly repatriated.
"We are expanding the opportunity for protection for those who are fleeing," Mr. Gray told reporters, reacting to criticism of the new American refusal to allow any boat people into the United States. He nevertheless insisted that enough facilities would be available to house the refugees.
But Lawrence A. Pezzullo, who was ousted earlier this year as the State Department's point man on Haiti after his efforts to broker a deal drew fire from Aristide supporters, said the latest setback leaves the administration no option other than military intervention, which he opposes.
"They're going to have to invade," he said in a telephone interview last night.
"The only way to get out of this is to show force and show that they're bringing a resolution to it."
Washington stepped up its effort to rattle Haiti's military leaders yesterday, with the Pentagon confirming a New York Times report that Army and Navy special-operations troops had been practicing for an invasion of Haiti.
Mr. Gray refused to link the growing turmoil over refugees to the likelihood of an invasion.
Exercises in Florida
Dennis Boxx, a Pentagon spokesman, refused to discuss details of an exercise by elite Army and Navy special-operations troops two weeks ago in Florida on a contingency plan to capture Haitian airfields and ports. About 1,730 Haitian boat people were picked up yesterday by U.S. Coast Guard vessels, Mr. Boxx said. Nearly 16,000 Haitians have been intercepted since June 16, when a looser U.S. policy on granting asylum went into effect.
Before Mr. Endara's reversal, the United States had planned to send 800 Americans to Panama to begin working on logistics and security for providing the Haitians shelter there.