WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats ripped into the Bush administration's handling of Haiti on Wednesday, saying its failure to support ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sent a chilling signal to democratically elected governments in this hemisphere.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus at a House of Representative's committee hearing also questioned whether the administration had mistreated Aristide as it bundled him out of Haiti, and said it had left the country in the hands of thugs, murderers and narco-traffickers.
You didn't want a diplomatic solution to this problem. You wanted to get rid of Aristide.
US Rep. Gregory Meeks
In frequently testy exchanges with lawmakers, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said the United States did not have an obligation to put its forces in harm's way to shore up Aristide.
"We have to make decisions about where we will put American lives at risk," Noriega, who heads State Department Western Hemisphere operations, told a House International Relations subcommittee.
"The erratic, irresponsible behavior of Aristide in the last 48 hours ... did mean he was not a sustainable political solution," he said. Aristide, he said, had "undermined democracy and economic development in Haiti rather than strengthened it."
More than 1,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Haiti as part of a multinational force approved by the United Nations on Sunday after Aristide was driven from power following days of burning and looting. French and Canadian troops were also in Haiti to join a force expected to grow to about 5,000.
Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said people in this hemisphere were "watching this government turn its back on democracy. .... The message is clear. This government will not stand up for a democratically elected head of state they do not like."
"You didn't want a diplomatic solution to this problem. You wanted to get rid of Aristide," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat.
REFUGEE STATUS FOR HAITIANS?
Lawmakers also pressed the administration on whether it would provide temporary refugee status to Haitians fleeing the violence, saying the policy of repatriation left them to almost certain retribution in their country.
But Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey said: "There is concurrence now ... that it is not time to recommend that status and the reason is that the situation is just too fluid."
Rep. Charles Rangel, another New York Democrat, pressed Noriega on whether the administration demanded that Aristide resign as a condition of giving him safe passage out of Haiti.
Noriega said the administration "probably" would have helped him leave the country without his resignation for humanitarian reasons, but said the administration "wanted to have a sustainable solution to avoid bloodshed."
He said Aristide's departure "was never a U.S. demand." U.S. officials cleared an expansion of Aristide's security as violence mounted, Noriega said, but were not willing to put U.S. troops on the ground to protect him.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said she had a telephone conversation on Wednesday with Aristide in which he repeated his charge that the United States forced him to leave Haiti against his will, and was in effect kidnapped.
Administration officials have dismissed that claim as nonsense, but lawmakers pressed Noriega on how Aristide was transported to the Central African Republic and name U.S. officials involved.
Florida Republican Rep. Porter Goss said that could endanger those officials, and praised the administration, saying the "the efforts you have made have probably led to results that are the best we can have."
©2004 Reuters Ltd