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Our Haitian problem

Haiti's terrible problems are increasingly becoming the United States' problems, too. The influx of Haitian refugees has created an intractable dilemma for the Bush and Clinton administrations, and that dilemma was only intensified by this week's court order releasing dozens of Haitian detainees infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

In the long run, though, the Haitian refugee crisis will not be solved by judge's opinions or immigration policies. Instead, the United States and other governments must intervene as forcefully as possible to deal with the oppressive political and economic conditions within Haiti that continue to leave so many people desperate enough to attempt to flee their country.

The refugee crisis that now faces the Clinton administration is just a symptom of our government's failure to respond as aggressively as it should have to the 1991 overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The limited economic sanctions originally imposed by the United States and other members of the Organization of American States have had little effect on the military thugs who have continued to hold the real power in Haiti since Aristide's ouster while a succession of front men have come and gone. Meanwhile, a series of diplomatic efforts to restore Aristide to power have fallen through as a result of the military leaders' last-minute recalcitrance.

Having lost patience with the faltering diplomatic process, President Clinton finally is putting in place the kinds of sanctions that President Bush should have imposed in 1991. The new worldwide ban on oil shipments to Haiti is likely to cause some additional hardship for a population that already suffers from the lowest standard of living in the hemisphere, but it will have a much more direct impact on the Haitian military.

Another new tactic being proposed by the Clinton administration may be even more effective in punishing the handful of Haitian oligarchs who have depended on the military to protect their privileged status. The White House is asking the U.N. Security Council to order a worldwide freeze of the overseas bank accounts and other assets of those few Haitians with international wealth. There may be no better way of making Aristide's return to power look palatable to them by comparison.

For the great majority of Haitians, the Rev. Aristide represented the best hope for a society that could finally move beyond the brutality and corruption of the Duvalier dictatorship and subsequent military-backed regimes. Until Aristide and other democratic leaders finally gain real power, Haiti will remain a pathetically backward and oppressed country _ and the roots of the United States' refugee problem will remain.

There's a good chance that the tougher sanctions now being put in place will have an almost immediate impact on a government that is economically fragile in the first place. As a last resort, though, there should be no doubt in Washington or Port-au-Prince that the United States and Haiti's other neighbors have every right to intervene militarily to correct an intolerable political situation that already is producing adverse social consequences within their own borders.

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