Clinton said the action was necessary to end a junta's brutal and illegal rule. A decade and a half later, the now-U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti believes the country has its best chance yet to recover from a decision whose effects are still felt today.
"I hated it," Clinton told reporters at a private pier he hopes will be used by a revived garment export industry. "But when you have people being burned to death with tires around their neck, that's important too. We had to bring an end to that."
Then-President Clinton inherited limited sanctions aimed at weakening the regime that overthrew democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. In the spring of 1994, they became an embargo that prevented all goods from entering Haiti except humanitarian supplies, crippling the economy.
An assembly sector that had employed 100,000 workers fell to just 17,000 jobs, according to the U.S. State Department. It has barely recovered since.
The regime finally fell when Clinton ordered U.S. troops to prepare for an invasion of the country in September 1994 and the coup leaders stepped down. Aristide returned to power, only to be ousted again in a 2004 rebellion and depart for Africa aboard a U.S. plane.
Clinton said attempts to revive the economy since then have been stymied by natural disasters, infrastructure failures and unrest.
But with the support of Haiti's neighbors, he now believes recovery is possible. On Friday he ended a two-day trip to Haiti that included a packed investors' conference and visits to tourism sites and a clothing factory.
"This time, we've got the right mix of things within Haiti and beyond its borders," he said.
The envoy declined to advise President Barack Obama on what to do if faced with a similar decision to impose an embargo against a country today. But he did offer some general counsel.
"Generally the sanctions do not work in the way you want and they carry a high cost, so they should be carefully imposed," Clinton said. "But sometimes the price of not doing it is greater than the price of doing it."