Politics Beats Saving Lives
IN FEBRUARY OF 1991 the United States decided to send troops to the Persian Gulf to prevent Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. In February of 1992 the United States decided to deny asylum to thousands of Haitians seeking refuge from harassment and violence.
A disturbing double standard exists in the Bush administration's decision to send troops into Kuwait last year and its present position toward the fleeing Haitians. Iraq's aggression merited definitive condemnation by the U.S. government. The brutal conduct of the Haitian dictatorship against its own people deserves similar censure.
But instead of condemning the Haitian authorities, the administration has coddled them. The Haitians, thousands of them, say they are running for political reasons. President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III say they're lying. It's not political persecution they fear--it's American economic goodies they want.
But this cynicism was nowhere to be found last year, when Kuwaitis in the West claimed that Iraq had committed unpardonable atrocities since invading the country. Obviously the U.S. had some reason to believe that the Kuwaitis faced such horrors. The problem is that Bush and Baker have just as much reason to think that the Haitians face political persecution. But since when has reason played any role in the Bush administration?
THE ADMINISTRATION justifies its callous policy of repatriation by denying the allegations of brutality made by these Haitians. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs committee last month, Secretary of State James A. Baker III claimed that there is no evidence of a repatriated refugee having been the victim of government reprisal.
Baker's casual dismissal of the refugees' claims is inadequate. The refugee project of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights condemned the State Department's investigation as cursory and superficial. Arthur Helton, director of the refugee project, countered Baker by asserting that the government has an obligation to prove that the refugees' allegations are false before sending them back to potential danger.
Now the administration has even more reason to believe the Haitians. The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted several boats of "double-backers," repatriated Haitians trying to leave their homeland for a second time. Documents released by Helton containing the statements of dozens of these "double-backers" contradict Baker's claim that Haitian authorities are not persecuting repatriated refugees.
Furthermore, military leader General Raoul Cedras still retains control in Haiti despite an agreement reached last week in Washington between Aristide and leaders of parliament. The proposed plan envisions Aristide's eventual return to Haiti, but this return is not expected to occur in the foreseeable future. The Cedras government which will stay in power for the interim is the same regime from which thousands of Haitians have fled.
Despite a vow from the State Department to intensify its efforts to verify the refugees' claims, they have not halted the repatriation program. U.S. Coast Guard cutters carry hundreds of Haitians back to their homeland every week.
By vowing to intensify verification efforts, the administration acknowledges the potential that repatriated Haitians are being targeted. They should accordingly halt repatriation until this verification can be completed.
VERIFICATION WASN'T even mentioned before the U.S.-led coalition bombed Iraq back to oblivion. operating according to this precedent, the administration should be willing to accept the Haitian refugees' allegation without need for corroborating evidence.
Last year, the U.S. government accepted the testimony of a single, unidentified teenage Kuwaiti female that Iraqi soldiers were removing babies from their incubators and leaving them in the streets to die. The image became a powerful one in discussions about the war, a sort of mantra for Bush's repeated justifications of the eventual ground assault.
The identity of this source whose testimony has such a dramatic effect on provoking concerted condemnation of Iraqi atrocities has been revealed in recent months. She is the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S.
Clearly, the U.S. government concealed her name because reporters would have challenged the legitimacy of her allegations if they had known that she was a direct relative of a high-ranking Kuwaiti official and a member of the Al-Sabah ruling family of Kuwait.
More troublingly, the administration continues to question the veracity of the testimony of thousands of Haitian refugees. Where were these vigilant watchdogs when a lone kuwaiti teenager was telling tales of atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers?
The sudden, appearance of these conscientious defenders of truth is not an unexplainable phenomenon. A presidential reelection campaign advertisement announcing the influx of thousands of impoverished Haitians probably strikes Bush as far less appealing than an advertisement flaunting the triumphant victory of overwhelming U.S. military forces over a despotic and tyrannical dictator.
Pat Buchanan would have a field-day railing against this latest group of immigrants despoiling our nation. Jimmy Carter went through hell trying to get Cuban refugees out of Florida and Arkansas in 1979. Ronald Reagan slammed him for it. Bush doesn't want to have to stave off a similar attack from Buchanan.
If the U.S. truly concern itself with the preservation of democracy and opposition to oppression, then decisive action to help the Haitians would achieve these ends more effectively than the restoration of rule to the Al-Sabahs in Kuwait. Unlike Emir Al-Sabah, Aristide was a democratically elected leader, the first ever in Haiti.
The administration's tacit acceptance of Aristide's ouster conveys a discouraging message to those who hope to reinstate the fledgling democracy of Haiti. The plan agreed to in Washington last week is only a token gesture which will have no effect in restoring political and personal liberty to Haiti as long as the country's military establishment opposes Aristide's return.
But the repatriated refugees will, of course, suffer the most dire consequences of this heartless policy. If the administration can trust the testimony of one self-interested Kuwaiti teenager, then shouldn't they believe the words of dozens of "double-backers" and the desperate actions of thousands of other Haitian refugees?
By choosing not to do so, Bush is guilty not just of employing a double standard--he is also responsible for the suffering that the repatriated Haitians endure.