Haiti: A Haunting History Lesson

BY Margaret Warner  January 14, 2010 at 5:46 PM EDT

In all the public statements we’ve heard about the Haitian tragedy — from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or USAID chief Rajiv Shah — no one had mentioned a key concern underlying the aggressive U.S. response.

But today, the dog barked. At a mid-afternoon briefing by Southcom commander Gen. Douglas Fraser, a reporter asked what the U.S. would do if “thousands of Haitians take to the boats” out of desperation.

“Security, and getting those relief efforts in there, are key to making sure Haitian citizens understand that we are really focused on mitigating their tragedy,” Fraser said. “That’s where our focus is … and that’s the best way to reduce the aspect of people wanting to leave the island.”

Haiti earthquake aftermath. Photo Credit: Peta-de-Aztlan via FlickrAdministration officials say that from the outset, in addition to the humanitarian impulse, the Obama team has been driven by a determination to head off a messy mass migration of Haitian refugees toward the U.S.

“A major concern is the temptation by Haitians to make the treacherous trek towards Florida,” an administration official told me by way of background the night the quake hit. “One of the reasons why we want to get in there quickly and give as much assistance as possible is so they know we’re going to do everything we can, and they should stay put. Every time there is a trek out, it’s tragic.”

Such treks are clearly tragic for the Haitians who die at sea. But they’re also politically treacherous for a U.S. president, as Secretary Clinton must vividly recall. Her husband, then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton lost his first bid for re-election in 1980 after 25,000 Cuban boat people, who’d been temporarily sent to a military base in Arkansas, staged riots.

During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton risked disaster again — saying the U.S. should give Haitians “temporary asylum until we restored the elected government of Haiti.” His election spurred poor Haitians to start building rickety boats to set sail across 500 miles of treacherous water. Haitians were “giddy” with expectation, the New York Times reported, and pundits began predicting it would present the new president with his first crisis. In January 1993, right after inauguration, President Clinton abruptly reversed course and said he’d continue President George H.W. Bush’s policy of forcible return.

Yet instability in Haiti — the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been overthrown — generated waves of boat people anyway. The situation grew so dire that during one week in June 1994, some 1,800 Haitians were intercepted at sea, while hundreds more perished when their boats sank. Determined to head off a mass exodus, in September President Clinton called up U.S. reservists to prepare for a possible invasion, before a last-minute accord paved the way for Aristide to return.

So when President Obama said the morning after the quake, “To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction, you will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten. America stands with you,” he was sending them a clear message: Stay where you are, help is on the way.

The president has to hope that the mighty U.S. military and relief teams now converging on this island nation reach its suffering people quickly — before Haitians turn the wreckage of their homes into makeshift boats.