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Haiti, Venezuela pose early tests for Obama administration

The Obama administration is getting an early reality check on some of the sticky issues facing U.S. foreign policy in this hemisphere.

Take just two recent examples: Haiti and Venezuela.

Immigration advocates, some of whom worked for the Obama campaign, are dismayed by growing reports of Haitians being deported to the hurricane-wrecked island, despite ongoing legal appeals.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition activists are equally appalled by the State Department's endorsement of Sunday's controversial referendum in which President Hugo Chávez won the right to unlimited re-election.

While Venezuela and Haiti are not considered priorities in U.S. foreign policy — at least not compared with Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran — they are likely to pose significant challenges for the State Department during the next four years. History has proven that American presidents ignore them at their peril.

In Haiti a new political crisis is looming over presidential elections due in 2010 that are likely to be hotly contested. The country is in even more severe economic distress than usual after four hurricanes last year killed 800 people, flooded the country's second-largest city, and destroyed roads, bridges and crops.

Meanwhile, Chávez has over the last decade turned Venezuela into an ideological crucible of anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America. Venezuela still supplies more than 10 percent of U.S. daily petroleum needs, and is leading efforts at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to push prices higher.

The Bush administration halted deportations to Haiti between September and mid December. But they have since resumed, including four people on Jan. 23, only three days after Obama's inauguration. Thousands more are in detention and face similar fates.

Immigration advocates are appealing for another moratorium, arguing that the devastation from hurricane season has left the country in no condition to handle large numbers of returnees.

"All we are asking for is reinstating the halt to deportation orders," said Steve Forester, with the group Haitian Women of Miami.

As a humanitarian gesture, others say the United States should grant Haitians who are in this country illegally what is known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, effectively freezing action on their cases. Haiti's cash-strapped economy depends heavily on remittances from families abroad, which would be hurt if deportations continue, they say.

Some of those being deported are noncriminal Haitians who have often been living here for more than a decade, and have young, U.S.-born children, as well as U.S. spouses, he said.

Forester cited the example of Louiness Petit-Frere, a Haitian man who was deported Jan. 23 after almost 10 years in this country. Petit-Frere is married to a U.S. citizen, his brother is an injured Iraq war veteran, and his mother is a permanent resident.

"He is calling his mother every day saying he has nothing to eat," said his attorney Candace Jean. "But he came (to Miami) on a boat and the law says you have to go back to your country for 10 years. It makes no sense."

Obama officials had another surprise this week after Chávez won Sunday's referendum allowing him to stand ad infinitum. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid described the vote as "entirely consistent with the democratic process," despite overwhelming evidence of misuse of state resources.

From that assessment it might appear that the Obama administration "has opted to turn its back on democracy in Venezuela," said Pedro Burelli, a Chávez critic and former board member of Venezuela's state oil company.

Privately, some officials are saying that the spokesman misread his guidance notes. But no one has officially come forward to correct him.

"The fact is that the Obama administration hasn't yet focused on the Venezuela challenge and hasn't decided how it is going to deal with Chávez," said Michael Shifter, at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "The result is some carelessness and contradictory signals."

Ditto Haiti.

Haiti, Venezuela pose early tests for Obama administration 02/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 11:15pm]

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