The Clinton administration has dropped hints that it may be backing off its support for exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but members of the U.S. peace movement have promised that they have not yet given up the fight for Aristide's return.
In its December 17 edition, The Los Angeles Times quoted "official sources" who claimed that "any chance of restoring democracy in Haiti is over." The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, William Swing, denied the rumor, saying that the United States was "firmly committed to restoring democracy [in Haiti] and the return of President Aristide."
But many Haitians feel that the Clinton administration has been only lukewarm at best in its support of Aristide. In December, administration officials expressed "irritation" that Aristide would not accept an arrangement in which he would be forced to share power with those who overthrew him two years ago. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of Haiti's largest peasant organization, told the U.S.-based Quixote Center there was evidence that "the Clinton administration, like the Bush administration, does not want to see Aristide return to Haiti."
An important piece of that evidence has been Clinton's handling of a CIA disinformation campaign against Aristide. The CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America, a hard-line right-winger named Brian Latell, was summoned by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in October to reprise old charges that Aristide had undergone psychiatric treatment in a Canadian hospital. The Miami Herald investigated the charges and proved them false, but the damage had been done to Aristide's reputation and to efforts to increase U.S. support for Haitian democracy.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said after Latell's testimony that the "vicious attacks by the CIA against President Aristide...leave open a number of questions about the motivations for these actions." Some White House officials accused the CIA of distorting its findings in a deliberate attempt to scuttle administration policy. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that "the net effect has been the public character assassination of President Aristide based on flimsy second- and third-hand information.
"I would remind the American public that even worse things were said about Dr. Martin Luther King," Aristide told The Washington Post. "As a psychologist, I know how character assassination and psychological warfare can be used against you."
After the CIA briefing, 27 U.S. Catholic bishops released a letter stating, "Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been a model of true leadership, and among modern heads of state he stands out for his consistent and courageous calls for nonviolent change."
Meanwhile, human rights advocates in the United States have criticized the Clinton administration for "dropping the ball" on Haiti, and even some administration officials have raised notes of discord. Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, reportedly called the administration's policy toward Haitian refugees a "dark stain," and State Department human rights official John Shattuck was taken to the woodshed for suggesting that the U.S. policy of returning Haitian "boat people" be re-evaluated.