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Haitian embarrassment

The Clinton administration's disenchantment with Haiti's exiled president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, becomes clearer by the day, but the justification for it does not. After all the veiled rumors and vague complaints are taken for what they are worth, the administration's criticism of Aristide boils down to this: Why can't he be more conciliatory toward the uniformed thugs who overthrew his elected government, killed a few dozen of his associates and supporters and ran him out of the country?

Even observers who do not have the Clinton administration's self-serving reasons to cast blame for Haiti's problems acknowledge that Aristide can be exceedingly difficult to deal with. They say he is uncompromising, messianic, paranoid, unrealistic. All of that may be true to a point. Given the succession of murderous despots he has challenged, though, a bit of messianic zeal and paranoia is understandable _ perhaps even mandatory for survival.

In any case, Aristide has done nothing to justify the Clinton administration's treating him more harshly than it does the goons who deposed him. For example, State Department officials this week were openly critical of Aristide for failing to take steps to broaden his government and grant amnesty to the military officers who took control of Haiti in 1991. Realistically, Aristide may well have to make substantial compromises if there is to be any hope of a peaceful restoration of his government. However, Washington officials act as though they have forgotten that Aristide made concessions similar to the ones they are demanding now as part of an agreement that fell apart last year when the military government reneged on its end of the bargain.

The Clinton administration's disproportionate testiness with Aristide only strengthens the suspicion that the real source of friction lies elsewhere. From the White House's point of view, Aristide has a bad habit of embarrassing President Clinton by remarking upon the hypocrisy and failure of this administration's Haiti policy in general, and its refugee policy in particular.

Concentrating on niggling criticism of Aristide's personality flaws is a convenient diversion for President Clinton and the State Department. It draws attention away from the much more serious flaws and flip-flops of their Haiti policy. After suffering through a succession of brutal dictatorships, Haitians had the courage to demand the right to determine their own destiny. In one of this hemisphere's great triumphs of democracy, they streamed to the polls in 1990 and elected Aristide, flaws and all. Even if the Clinton administration doesn't respect Aristide, it should be showing more respect for the will of the Haitian people.

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