Over the next few months, the United States will replace its permanent military contingent in Haiti with rotating teams of troops, continuing a gradual reduction in the military commitment that began five years ago, administration officials said yesterday.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the U.S. military will periodically send teams to the Caribbean nation for humanitarian and development projects.
"The forces, our presence, there will not be withdrawn. But as we've said for some time now, we want to move away from the current configuration of a permanent deployment and more to a rotational and more project-specific configuration," Lockhart said.
Under the new plan, the U.S. military presence in Haiti will be no different from what exists in other Latin American nations, according to a senior Pentagon official. "Units will go in on a routine basis to do things like building roads or conducting an immunization campaign, and then they'll come home," the official said.
U.S. forces occupied Haiti in September 1994 to restore the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed and forced into exile by the Haitian military.
Of a force that initially numbered 20,000, only about 450 U.S. troops remain. But the decision to end the full-time deployment followed a debate within the administration over whether the move might be seen as abandonment of Haiti as it struggles to achieve economic and political stability.
During a visit to Washington in June, a delegation of Haitian business people pleaded with the administration and Congress to leave a symbolic contingent in place through the parliamentary elections in November and the presidential vote a year later.
Their argument, however, was overwhelmed by strong views at the Pentagon and among Republican leaders in Congress. General Charles E. Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Southern Command, has publicly recommended a pullout, saying it would be safer for U.S. troops to be based elsewhere and go into Haiti for limited missions. In June, a provision ordering a withdrawal by the end of the year was inserted by the House of Representatives into its version of the annual defense spending bill, which has yet to be finalized.
Speaking to reporters on Martha's Vineyard, where President Clinton is vacationing, Lockhart said the new "configuration" should not be viewed as a reflection of diminishing U.S. concern for Haiti. "I think the important thing to note here is the U.S. remains committed to the policy of helping promote democracy there," he said.
At the Pentagon, the meaning of the new policy seemed unambiguous. "The Department of Defense is leaving Haiti, and it is going to be just like any other country in the region as far as the military is concerned," said a senior defense official.