MIAMI — Out of sight for the moment, kept at bay like the muffled nagging of a bad conscience, America's disgrace gathers its dark testimony, waiting to be heard. In the rough waters off Haiti, an unforgiving judgment is about to be rendered.
There's little sign of this yet back home. In a sleepy TV twilight, politicians tell us soothing tales to banish bad dreams. Everything's fine in Washington, where it's always bedtime and we are the heroes of every story. Here in the nursery, there are no goblins under the bed, only the great deeds and lofty motives of a wise and generous nation.
"The Haitian people, held captive by a pack of pampered bullies, cry to us for their lost democracy. We have rallied the family of nations to their cause. America, a resolute but temperate people, will restore them to freedom and self-government without violence and without offense to their sovereignty. 'With the antiseptic purgative of a global embargo -- a sort of economic acupuncture -- we will dislodge the tyrants by depriving them of their Chardonnay. Though there will be hardship for a time, the Haitian people will bear it stoically, knowing that in the end they will rejoice. For soon they will have rejoined the community of free nations, hopeful and prosperous once more.
"Orchestra swells. Lights fade. Credits. Applause."
We believe all this, most of the time, because the alternative is repugnant: We are starving a pitiful little country into oblivion because it is ruled by bad people whom we are afraid to remove.
The fairy-tale version could delude us forever were it not for the massive reality-check now collecting in the Caribbean. The Haitian people, it turns out, have no desire to waste away patiently, dying of anthrax and typhoid, foraging for fuel in a deforested wasteland and waiting for government machetes to mow them down in the streets. They are subject, it turns out, to some pretty basic laws of human nature.
Tyrants have come and gone in Port-au-Prince, and the Haitians have improvised ways to deal with them, despite the injustices and occasional horror. But a global embargo that can be circumvented only by the wealthy and well-armed is a blanket death sentence.
Meanwhile, even before the sentence is carried out, it infuriates those in charge, provoking new depths of vengeance and depravity. Destitute Haitians, in the eyes of the Port-au-Prince strongmen, are now the enemy -- lackeys of the detested democrats and their American patrons, and thus at fault for the embargo.
Haitians see no future in this (they're not fools), and so they flee. This is not how the story was supposed to end.
President Clinton came to office promising moral purpose and clarity in U.S. foreign policy. Yet here, a few hundred miles from American shores, the purpose is subverted and the clarity is gone. He needs another story, fast.
Option 1: Lift the embargo.
The message of the Haitian exodus is plain and compelling: If this is the best the United States and the United Nations can do, they would be better off doing nothing.
That, in fact, is the advice of some thoughtful conservatives, and it has merits. So long as Americans remain the architects of starvation in Haiti -- through an embargo that we engineered single-handedly and now enforce -- we are doubly obliged to accept the resulting flood of refugees: First, because international law forbids turning away those who flee oppression, and second because many of them wouldn't be refugees were it not for the aggravating influence of a ruthless U.S. policy.
Nearly everyone seems to agree, at least, about this much: Accepting all Haitian refugees would be costly for the United States, disastrous for South Florida and no help for Haiti. We need to escape any obligation, explicit or implied, to accept every Haitian, or even most Haitians, who set sail for Miami.
But simply lifting the embargo, as some of the Clinton administration's critics suggest, leaves the problem only half-solved. Yes, the United States would be relieved of its own guilt for Haiti's misery. But there would still be refugees, no doubt lots of them.
We still could not, legally or morally, turn them all away. Many could still prove, compellingly, that they are the targets of a murderous regime (a regime, by the way, whose political ancestry traces back to dictatorships once coddled by Washington).
Lifting the embargo would at least remove the blood from America's hands. It would not, though, remove the humane obligation shared by every civilized nation: to hear the claims of those fleeing persecution.
Option 2: Invade.
Three things distinguished the abortive, seven-month tenure of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide: First, he took office with an overwhelming mandate from two-thirds of Haitian voters, who braved threats and the memory of past violence to cast their ballots for him. Second, he made an uninspiring but credible start at democratic governance. And third, for the first time in years, the flow of refugees from Haiti virtually stopped while he was in office.
Restoring President Aristide to power quickly, helping build democratic institutions and taming the military therefore seem the surest steps to ending the Haitian nightmare, both for Haitians and for Americans. Since Haiti's military junta has proved, time and again, that it will not budge, there is little choice but to force them out.
Unfortunately, supporters of armed intervention find the president a poor spokesman for their cause. He does not himself favor an invasion, and he inspires little passion among those who do.
But that may be just as well. Father Aristide himself isn't the point anyway. Nor is "restoring" a Haitian democracy that never saw its first birthday. If the United States is to articulate a rational moral purpose for effective action in Haiti, the worst thing it could do is concoct yet another fairy-tale. The restoration of an elected leader is the first step, not the goal, in seeking a sustainable and peaceful society in Haiti.
The prospect of an American-led occupation of Haiti will dredge up memories of the last time Washington tried to set things right in Port-au-Prince: a 19-year-long occupation early in this century that was as exhausting as it was inconsequential. Americans occupied Haiti in 1915, thoroughly roughed up the place, rigged an election and treated the black population to the full force of American racial attitudes of that period. The resentment among Haitians was understandable and enduring.
That episode makes a useful cautionary tale. But there's no reason why it has to be repeated. The American military, for one thing, is no longer the white bastion it was then. And although Haiti's recent experience with democracy was brief, it was genuine, not rigged by outsiders. Both sides now have experience that was lacking in 1915.
Now as then, an occupation won't be simple or fast. Americans will have to be prepared for a long entanglement. Though that will be expensive, it will be far less costly in the long run than a torrent of refugees resettling in the United States.
The alternative is to wait. We can purr contentedly a while longer about letting the sanctions take their effect, and letting diplomacy work some magic, all the while turning our gaze, if jTC possible, from the consequences gathering offshore.
But soon the ships will be jammed, and the bases will be bursting and the improvised "safe havens" on foreign soil will have worn out their welcome. The reckoning will be due then, and there will be no story soothing enough to keep the judgment at bay.
Tony Proscio is associate editor of the Miami Herald.