WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The assassination of a prominent clergyman supporter of ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide served brutal notice yesterday that while Cuba is dominating the international news these days, Haiti is still an invasion waiting to happen.
The State Department condemned "in the strongest terms" the Sunday night killing by paramilitary gunmen of the Rev. Jose Maria Vincent, a supporter of the ousted democratically elected president. The shooting was viewed as part of the junta's efforts to eliminate support for Father Aristide.
"There is a pattern now of violence, intimidation and human rights violations in Haiti that the Haitian military and police allow to continue with complete impunity," the State Department said in a statement. "That is utterly deplorable."
Addressing the military junta that overthrew Father Aristide, the statement said, "Your crimes only increase our outrage and strengthen our resolve to rid Haiti of your abuses.
"Make no mistake, outrages such as these reinforce the determination of the international community to take all necessary means to bring about the early restoration of democracy in Haiti. The international community will not get tired, will not give up, will not look away."
A senior State Department official, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that the priest's shooting was "a reminder that we can't wait forever."
The implicit threat of invasion came as administration officials prepared to meet Cuban officials in New York in an effort to defuse the other crisis in the Caribbean by bringing a semblance of order and legality to the perilous outflow of refugees.
And it answered the question that was beginning to be asked: Whatever happened to Haiti?
"The irony here is that the Clinton administration is ignoring the fact that one country, Haiti, is preventing its people from leaving by shooting them, and at the same time is upset that another country, Cuba, has said 'OK, you can leave,' " said Ira Kurzban, a lawyer with the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami.
When 16,019 Haitian refugees were picked up at sea in July, compared with 1,010 Cubans, Haiti became the Clinton administration's crisis of the month. Invasion appeared imminent.
This month, the figures have been nearly reversed. Only 224 Haitians have been rescued from overcrowded sailboats, compared with 17,184 Cuban rafters. Cuba has become the regional flash point, with Haiti on the back burner.
Administration officials claimed yesterday to be "ambidextrous," handling both crises with the same urgency, but critics charged that a double diplomatic standard was emerging.
Throughout the current Cuban crisis, according to officials, the Clinton administration has continued to try to garner international support for military action to oust the dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and to administer the impoverished country during a transition to democracy and economic recovery. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch will seek troop commitments from Caribbean foreign and defense ministers at a meeting in Jamaica today.
"We are confident that a lot of our Haitian diplomacy in these recent weeks to build support for this multinational force will be successful," Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman, said yesterday. He declined to say how many nations, or troops, had been enlisted by the administration. A senior State Department official said the United States would be seeking commitments of support at the Jamaica meeting.
"Having good discussions and getting public announcements are two different things," the official conceded. "It's going to take some work."
President Clinton has kept open the military option, having won U.N. approval for an invasion. Asked about reports that the Cuban crisis could delay an invasion of Haiti until after the November elections, Mr. McCurry refused to speculate on timing. "I'm not going to telegraph the type of punch that the world community's ready to deliver," he said.
Leading Republicans in Congress have expressed opposition to an invasion, arguing that replacing the government in Haiti is not worth the loss of American lives because of President Aristide's questionable human rights record.
And among the administration's top policy makers, there are different views on military action, with Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leading the resistance to rapid invasion. They have argued that it is easier to get troops into Haiti than to get them out. They want sanctions to be given time to force the military regime out of office.
Favoring speedy invasion is Mr. Talbott.
The Cuban crisis has given sanctions against Haiti extra time to bite. But it has also forced the Navy to reduce the number of U.S. ships that are enforcing the U.N. embargo on Haiti, increasing the opportunities for smuggling to beat the sanctions.
Four of the 10 warships around Haiti last week were ordered to Cuba, but as of yesterday, the U.S. Atlantic Command said nine ships, three of them foreign, were again enforcing the Haitian embargo.
More than 1,800 Marines are aboard warships off Haiti. Officially, they are standing by to evacuate U.S. citizens from Haiti, if necessary. But they are also trained in sea, land and air invasion.
One problem for the administration: With attention focused on Cuba, U.S. voters are not expecting to wake up any day soon to find the Marines in Haiti.