The New York Times
February 19, 2004

Florida Senators Urge Action on Haiti, Fearing Tide of Refugees

By CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
 
ASHINGTON, Feb. 18 Florida's two Democratic senators said Wednesday that the Bush administration was resisting their appeals to take stronger action to avert an exodus of refugees from Haiti, who they fear could end up on the shores of their state.

The senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, say they have warned administration officials several times in recent days of the potential for a flood of Haitians trying to flee an intensifying two-week rebellion, as has happened during past conflicts in the Caribbean country.

"I would characterize the position the administration is taking as being one of indifference and a strong desire of not wanting to get involved," Mr. Graham said. Both senators said the administration should not shy away from a show of force.

In addition to the potential for a vast human crisis, the matter is especially sensitive politically. The state, whose governor is Jeb Bush, the president's brother, is seen as pivotal in the November elections.

This week the administration rejected the idea of sending American police officers or troops to Haiti, saying it prefers to help broker a political solution.

It has also directed considerable criticism at the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was reinstated 10 years ago with the help of 21,000 troops sent by the Clinton administration after he was overthrown in a coup.

Today the ill will toward Mr. Aristide, who has overseen a lasting political deadlock in Haiti, runs deep among some policy makers.

"The course that we've chosen, the one that the international community has chosen, is to get the parties in Haiti to take up their responsibility," said Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman.

"Much of the violence that we see now is being created by gangs that were once aligned with the Aristide government," he added. "Without that factor, Haiti would be much closer to the rule of law and farther away from gang violence."

Senator Nelson said he favored sending in an armed force to protect civilians and to force a political settlement. "If you act now, you cut off all those problems at the source," he said.

Mr. Graham played an important role in coping with the Haitian refugee crisis of the early 1990's, which led to the interception at sea of tens of thousands of Haitians.

"If we can send military forces to Liberia 3,000 miles away we certainly can act to protect our interests in our own backyard," he said. "Inaction can no longer be our policy."

Administration officials say they have hardly been idle. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with Canada's foreign minister and the leaders of the Caribbean Community last week, trying to find a way to put in place a power-sharing agreement that Mr. Aristide has endorsed.

Canada and France have offered to send police officers to Haiti, but only after the peace is restored.

So far, officials say, there is no sign of a gathering exodus. During previous crises, surveillance photos have spotted boat building and internal migrations of Haitians to coastal villages.

The Coast Guard, which maintains a permanent presence off Haiti with cutters and planes, is monitoring events, but has been given no special orders to step up patrols, said Luis Diaz, a spokesman in Miami.

He said the number of Haitians intercepted at sea 149 in February was in line with previous years, when annual totals have fluctuated between 1,000 and 2,000.