- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Amid a chill in relations over the resignation of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Bush administration quietly is urging wary Caribbean leaders to recognize Haitis interim government as a way to boost the struggling countrys political stability.

Washington thinks recognition of Haitis new administration by the 15-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, would help interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue restore peace and order, a U.S. government official in Washington said yesterday in a phone interview.

Caricom leaders will hold a two-day meeting starting today in St. Kitts and Nevis, where Haiti is expected to dominate the agenda.

Mr. Latortue, a former U.N. official, is expected to attend. But some leaders have expressed alarm at a ceremony over the weekend, during which the new prime minister praised anti-Aristide armed gangs, including rebels with ties to the islands notorious death squads.

The Bush administration has taken steps to improve relations with Caricom. Roland Bullen, U.S. ambassador to Guyana, has been named as special envoy to the bloc, said the Washington official, who asked not to be named.

U.S. relations with governments in the region already were strained by differences over the Iraq war, but they reached new lows when Mr. Aristide said U.S. forces kidnapped him late last month and flew him aboard a U.S.-chartered jet to exile in the Central African Republic.

U.S. officials vehemently have denied Mr. Aristides version of events, saying that the one-time Catholic priest resigned voluntarily and that U.S. personnel probably saved his life as rebel forces closed in on Port-au-Prince, the capital.

To the annoyance of U.S. officials, Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, Caricoms chairman, called for a U.N. investigation into Mr. Aristides departure. Mr. Patterson then allowed the former president to come to Jamaica for “humanitarian reasons” to be reunited with his wife and two children.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Aristides return to the region a “bad idea,” while Mr. Latortue said permitting the visit was an “unfriendly act.” He recalled Haitis ambassador from Jamaica and froze relations with Caricom in protest.

Jamaican Foreign Minister K.D. Knight insisted that Mr. Aristide would not be allowed to use Jamaica as a “launching pad” to regain power.

Nigeria and Venezuela have offered asylum to Mr. Aristide, who is expected to stay in Jamaica for up to 10 weeks.

As part of a U.N.-approved security force, 1,900 U.S. troops are in Haiti, backed up by 730 French troops, about 360 Canadians and more than 330 Chileans.

Haiti and Iraq are not the only sticking points in relations between the United States and Caricom nations.

Caribbean leaders fumed over the Bush administrations insistence that they sign agreements blocking the extradition of U.S. citizens and military personnel accused of crimes by the International Criminal Court, which the U.S. government staunchly opposes.

In July, the Bush administration cut military assistance to Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago for refusing to sign the exemption accords.

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