WASHINGTON – The last time democracy fell apart in Haiti, black Democrats launched a very public campaign to get the Clinton administration to return Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) to power.
As Aristide's rule again nears collapse, the same players are stepping up pressure again - only now it's on the Bush administration. And they are using different tactics. Rather than sending protesters into the streets, they're buttonholing top officials and showing up at President Bush's doorstep on short notice to urge that democratic rule be preserved in Haiti (search).
"This is an urgent moment calling for urgent action," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Wednesday after he notified Bush's top aides that members of the Congressional Black Caucus (search) would pay an impromptu visit to the White House.
It is unclear whether the Democrats will succeed this time.
Bush said Wednesday that the United States was seeking a political solution to the crisis in Haiti, and his administration has made clear it has no desire to send in troops beyond the 50 Marines who arrived there Monday to protect the U.S. Embassy.
The president said he supports creation of an international security presence in Haiti to maintain order if a political settlement is reached.
The United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti to restore Aristide to power in 1994, three years after Aristide - the country's first democratically elected president - was toppled by a coup. Since then, Aristide has been criticized by the United States for corruption, for rigged 2000 legislative elections and for violence against his political opponents.
On Wednesday, Bush made it clear that Haitians trying to flee to the United States by sea would be turned away.
American blacks contend that policy smacks of racism. They say the United States is unwilling to risk sending soldiers into the chaotic Caribbean nation, the Western Hemisphere's poorest, because its people are of African descent.
When Bush's words reached Jesse Jackson (search) in Libya on Wednesday, he began dialing up members of Congress and administration officials to lash out.
"It is clear that the right wing in this country does not support that democracy," Jackson said in a telephone interview. "(Bush) is, in fact, supporting overthrow of this government in this hemisphere."
On Capitol Hill, 18 black caucus members, plus Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., hopped on a bus and went to the White House. Their main demands to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, were that the United States call for a cease-fire in Haiti, create a humanitarian buffer zone in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and work to keep Haiti from slipping again into the clutches of a dictatorship.
The lawmakers argued that the United States was encouraging the insurgency by refusing to restore humanitarian aid, and they asked the administration to send in troops to protect Haitian officials.
"We cannot have [Aristide's] life taken away on our watch," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said beforehand.
Rice emphasized the administration's hopes for a political framework that could lead to a peace accord. Powell said now was simply not the time for military intervention, even though "we're just as concerned about the loss of human life as you are."
The lawmakers asked for Bush, and Bush joined the meeting. They stressed the need for the humanitarian zone, and Bush said he would think about it.
"He made it very, very clear he shared our concerns. His question was whether he agreed with the solutions," Cummings said afterward.
Earlier this week, a klatch of Democratic senators also sat down with Roger Noriega (search), the assistant secretary of state who led a delegation to Haiti last weekend. One of them, Bill Nelson of Florida, whose state has a sizable Haitian-American population, said later that the administration's policy seemed designed to drive Aristide out of power.
Jackson said tried to reach Powell before going to Libya, arguing that the United States had a responsibility to stand by Aristide, like it or not.
When he couldn't reach Powell, Jackson said he instead got on the phone with Democratic front-runner John Kerry. Kerry spoke out Tuesday, telling The New York Times that the Bush administration encouraged revolt by cutting off humanitarian aid and adopting an aloof posture toward Aristide.
On Monday night, when Powell returned his call, Jackson urged Powell to engage in shuttle diplomacy between Aristide and opposition leaders, and asked that Bush send U.S. soldiers to protect the president's compound.
Late Wednesday, as the lawmakers' bus pulled away from the White House, the Coast Guard intercepted a boat carrying 22 Haitians off the coast of Miami.
"I can tell you from our visit if they didn't know, they really know now, the importance of an international intervention with the United States playing a leading role," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla.