The activist with a passion for foreign policy


Washington -- The headlines on Randall Robinson's desk made for a lousy place mat yesterday morning. Clinton Halts Invasion as Haiti Leaders Agree to Quit.

For one of Washington's most visible advocates of African and Caribbean causes, the administration's deal just wasn't good enough. He readied his attack, blasted the agreement on National Public Radio and scheduled an afternoon press conference.

Randall Robinson was making noise -- again.

"The terms of the agreement don't bode well for long-term democracy," he said. Not if dictator Raoul Cedras can stay in the country after he cedes power to exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not if the military will still be run by those responsible for the murder, torture and rape of thousands of Haitians.

"The proponents of democracy will not be safe," he complained yesterday in his office at TransAfrica Forum, the lobbying organization he founded in 1977.

Though Mr. Robinson helped push President Clinton down the road toward sending 15,000 troops to Haiti -- risking American lives in the process -- he still wasn't satisfied. And wasn't shy about saying so.

After all, this 52-year-old Harvard Law School graduate has spent 17 years pushing and prodding the U.S. government on foreign policy issues -- first to do more to end apartheid in South Africa and now to do more to restore democracy in Haiti.

"I think he challenges people to bridge gaps. He's not a demagogue or separatist. He urges people's morality to cross racial lines," said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, an active Aristide supporter. "There is a certain nobility to Randall Robinson."

The media has been Mr. Robinson's chief weapon. From protests to speeches to a hunger strike, Mr. Robinson has been a savvy and resourceful human rights activist.

He first began to exploit the power of the media in 1984 when he staged protests in front of the South African Embassy. Mr. Robinson was arrested again and again and enlisted the support of celebrities to participate in the protests. Many of them were also arrested, garnering countless headlines for the Free South Africa movement.

And due, in part, to his anti-apartheid protests, the United States imposed sanctions against South Africa, helping to speed the release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela from prison and to hasten the death of apartheid.

But Mr. Robinson did not go to South Africa this past April to witness its historic multi-racial presidential election. Instead he retreated to TransAfrica's basement and refused food for 27 days -- a hunger strike designed to force the Clinton administration to change its closed-door policy toward Haitian boat people.

With a doctor checking him daily, the 6-foot-5-inch Richmond, Va., native dropped a half-pound a day to draw attention to the plight of the refugees, who often faced torture or death when they were returned to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard. Mr. Robinson said and said again that the Haitians deserved asylum hearings.

"I had a responsibility to act," Mr. Robinson said. "The [abuses] were a stinging insult to my dignity. I don't distinguish myself from those people."

But Mr. Robinson -- the brother of the late ABC News anchorman Max Robinson -- knew he needed the media if his hunger strike was going to be noticed in all the right places -- well, the one right place: the White House.

Mr. Robinson hired a Washington public relations company to whip up coverage; day-by-day accounts of his hunger strike were reported. When he was hospitalized for dehydration, his PR representatives were on the phone spreading the news before the ambulance arrived.

But the hunger strike itself was not a PR creation, Mr. Robinson insisted.

"The idea was mine and mine alone," he said.

His wife, Hazel Ross-Robinson, supported the hunger strike because she was just as frustrated as her husband with the brutal human rights abuses taking place in Haiti.

"Randall is a profoundly courageous man," said Ms. Ross-Robinson, a foreign policy adviser to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "He is also profoundly realistic. We weren't simply talking about people not being able to assemble; we weren't talking about press censorship. He would have been concerned, but he certainly would not have gone on a hunger strike."

For starters, he had no death wish. And he did wonder whether anyone would notice if he stopped eating. He wasn't Gandhi, after all.

But the hunger strike worked. In May, after 27 days of fasting, Mr. Robinson ended his protest. President Clinton had announced a change of policy: Haitian refugees would receive asylum hearings.

How much credit did the hunger strike deserve for the policy change?

"I think it played a significant role. He clearly elevated the issue above where it was," said Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.

Michael Barnes, the former Maryland congressman who is a paid adviser to Mr. Aristide, visited Mr. Robinson during his hunger strike. "There was no martyrdom," Mr. Barnes said. "There's a great twinkle in his eye and nothing grandstanding or pompous about him."

Mr. Robinson refuses to speculate on whether history will remember his hunger strike as a turning point in U.S. policy toward Haiti.

"In time, everybody is forgotten," he said.

Maybe not. Randall Robinson clearly remembers his father, Maxie Robinson, a high school history teacher in Richmond, where Randall grew up and became buddies with a kid named Arthur Ashe, who couldn't stop whacking tennis balls around.

The Robinson household was crawling with history books. Randall was weaned on history and later developed a passion for foreign affairs. Early topics of interest included the colonization of South Africa. Early heroes included Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

His lasting heroes include his father. "Keep your own counsel. Never concern yourself with other people's opinions of what you do." His father used to tell him those things. And he always believed they were true.

His anti-apartheid work, his hunger strike, his 17 years of establishing TransAfrica as a powerful black lobby -- all have "reaffirmed the faith my parents had in me," he said.

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