Will Aristide Step Down?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide Haiti
CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.
If Haiti's President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, were a politician in the ordinary sense of the word and if the country he leads had only the ordinary mix of problems, the three week-old crisis in the Western hemisphere's poorest country would not be an international crisis. Instead, the rebellion in Haiti has attracted the attention of governments from Jamaica to Canada to France and international organizations like the United Nations, the Organization of the American States and CARICOM.

In Washington, the struggle between Aristide and his political opposition has forcibly grabbed the Bush administration's attention and presented Powell, Rumsfeld and company with another front-burner foreign policy crisis just nine months before election day. Talk about bad timing!

One week ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell convened a meeting in Washington of interested parties and the agreed upon strategy aimed at a political settlement through democratic and constitutional means and a rejection of any government which took power by force or coup d'etat.

Now, after a week of intense diplomacy, there appears to be a new emphasis from Washington. Powell has openly raised the question of Aristide's ability to manage Haiti, saying: "he is the democratically-elected president, but he has had difficulties in his presidency. I think, as a number of people have commented, whether or not he is effectively able to continue as president is something he will have to determine."

In case Aristide might have missed the point, Powell added: "I hope he will just examine the situation he is in and make a careful examination of how best to serve the Haitian people at this time." Last week's language from Powell that "we can't buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect the law" has been replaced by the new real politik: get out while you can, under the guise of doing what's best for your people.

While Powell has publicly expressed his own disappointment in Aristide's rule, a senior state dept. official noted the Clinton and Bush administrations invested a lot of people and money in Haiti and Aristide. Said the senior official: "looked at it solely in terms of his own little world while he was fomenting violence and creating gangs and now he's reaping what he's sown."

For once, the Bush administration is working overtime to take a multilateral approach to diplomacy. No snide remarks when the French wanted to have meetings with representatives of Haiti's government and opposition leaders in Paris. Please, go right ahead. When the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, called publicly for Aristide to step down, Washington offered no protest. The Caribbean countries want a debate on the urgency of the issue at the U N, no problem.

All of this week's diplomacy, including a flurry of phone calls between Powell and his fellow foreign ministers, has taken place while Aristide himself is under siege in the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, the Northern half of his country already lost to gun-toting rebels and the political opposition. Smoke is rising from the streets of the capital itself.

Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, it was Aristide who accepted the details of an internationally-backed peace plan this week and the political opposition which rejected the offer. Aristide must step down, the opposition said, as it rejected a personal appeal from Powell. All week anti-Aristide forces moved closer to the outskirts of the capital.

We are obviously near the tipping point. Either the pressure on Aristide from his opposition and from the international community will succeed in forcing his ouster or he will be able to rally the police and the off-the-books gangs he controls to beat back those opposed to his continued rule.

The U.S. military is making contingency plans to evacuate Americans from Haiti, if it comes to that. It's also keeping a sharp eye on Haitians trying to flee the chaos. Five hundred boat people have already been picked up by the Coast Guard and are being returned to Haiti's troubled shores.

The Bush administration's top officials continue to speak publicly of a political solution; silently you can almost read their lips praying for Aristide, a former priest, to see, if not divine guidance, at least the political handwriting on the wall.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.