Democrats Pounce on Bush Over Haiti

Posted March 10, 2004 at 6:28pm

Congressional Democrats charged Wednesday that the recent political unrest and bloodshed in Haiti is the result of the Bush administration’s failed foreign policy decisions, and vowed to make it an issue in the November elections.

Haiti’s stability and the safety of the U.S. troops deployed to the island nation to quell the violence is evolving into a political issue with some Democrats suggesting the White House supported the overthrow of a democratically elected head of state.

Democratic Senators met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus last week and agreed to present a coordinated message in the coming months on this subject at a time when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been questioning President Bush’s handling of the crisis.

“We are trying to get some answers, because it is a rather perplexing proposition for this country to be undermining an elected government elsewhere even if we don’t like that government,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.), the facilitator of last Thursday’s summit. “The administration’s foreign policy is fairly hard to follow these days. This appears to be a misstep in Haiti.”

Democrats are sharpening their focus on the circumstances that lead to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s exit from Haiti on Feb. 29. Upon taking up temporary residence in the Central African Republic, Aristide immediately claimed the U.S. kidnapped him and forced him to leave his country.

Roger Noriega, an assistant secretary of State, Wednesday told members of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that Aristide’s account was “ridiculous.”

Still, the Bush administration’s dismissal of Aristide’s claims has done little to persuade several Democrats in Congress that the United States was complicit in the Haitian president’s ouster.

“I am convinced that the recent coup involved not only Andre Apaid and the armed thugs, but also our own Ambassador Roger Noriega,” charged Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who was referencing one of the anti-Aristide leaders, as well as the State official. “Ambassador Noriega’s history is replete with actions against Haiti, both as [former] Senator [Jesse] Helms’ [R-N.C.] chief of staff and now as the Bush administration’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs.”

Questioning Noriega from the dais at Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked the assistant secretary what he thought about a rebel leader’s comments thanking the U.S. soldiers for helping to remove Aristide. Following a tense exchange, Noriega responded, “These are violent criminal thugs who have no place in Haiti.”

Aristide’s departure is not the only issue Democrats plan to raise in the coming weeks. At the hearing, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) suggested that the U.S. failed to abide by the Inter-American Democratic Charter that directs participating countries to prevent the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

“Whatever the specifics of his Sunday morning departure from Haiti, I can’t blame him for holding the belief that his departure was involuntary,” Dodd said of Aristide’s exit.

The Connecticut Democrat also said that financial assistance to Haiti is not adequate enough to meet the humanitarian needs of the poverty-stricken nation. Earlier in the day, a senior Democratic staffer produced a paper showing that Bush’s 2005 budget request is nearly $18 million short of what was given to Haiti in 2003.

“I think there is a real issue here of the Bush administration saying one thing and the reality is different,” said a senior Democratic Senator, who asked not to be named. “Watch what these guys do and not what they say. They give speeches about democracy and how wonderful it is and then they don’t live up to those principles when it is inconvenient or inconsistent with whatever their political view is.”

The Senator said the decision to work closely with the CBC made sense because “a combined group is more powerful than the sum of the parts.”

The Senator also noted Democrats would also be serving as surrogates for Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, by questioning Bush’s foreign policy decisions in Senate floor speeches.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is chairman of the CBC, said members of his organization would certainly highlight the Haiti situation as another example of the White House’s failed foreign policy strategy.

The CBC will meet privately with Kerry this morning, and Bush’s foreign policy positions and the Haitian crisis are expected to be discussed.

“If Senator Kerry decided to put this out there as one of his foreign policy issues we’d being willing to help him,” Cummings said. “We are determined to see Kerry elected.”

As for the bicameral Democratic coordination on the Haiti issue, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), said Caucus members find it fitting they are joining with the Senate to lead the election year offensive against the Bush administration’s foreign policy decisions.

“As you know, the CBC is the conscience of the Congress on foreign affairs,” said Hastings, a prominent CBC member. “It’s time for the experience in the caucus to play a role. Not only for the benefit of Americans, but it brings the Senate and House Democrats closer on issues of vital concern.”