Bush administration officials have come under sharp questioning in a congressional hearing from lawmakers critical of the U.S. role in Haiti in the days leading up to the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Some House Democrats allege the administration presented an ultimatum to President Aristide, resulting in an effective coup d'etat.
Wednesday's hearing before the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee provided an opportunity for one official to respond to these points. Declaring that the United States "never gave up on the people of Haiti," and remains a firm supporter of democracy, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, denied the administration had Mr. Aristide removed.
"President Aristide's departure was never a demand by the United States," he said. "We continuously worked with our international partners to break through the political impasse and to allow democracy to have a chance."
Subcommittee chairman (Republican) Cass Ballenger, and other Republicans described as absolutely false Democratic allegations the Bush administration supported an effective coup d'etat.
Under tough questioning, Mr. Noriega denied Washington had demanded a letter of resignation from Mr. Aristide, but was unable to convince (Democratic) Congressman Charles Rangel that Mr. Aristide was given a choice.
Mr. Noriega flatly denied allegations Mr. Aristide was forcibly removed from Haiti, adding that he was "not aware" of any involvement by the CIA in the Haitian leader's departure.
However, Assistant Secretary Noriega's attempts to describe the administration's handling of the situation only angered Democrats who say the White House and State Department failed to support a democratically-elected government facing an armed rebellion.
In an emotional exchange, (Democratic) Congressman Robert Menendez challenged Mr. Noriega's statement that the administration made the "right decision" in handling the situation.
"The erratic, irresponsible behavior of President Aristide in the last 48 hours demonstrated that he was not a reliable person and not a reliable interlocutor," said Mr. Noriega. "That does not mean by any means that we support the violent overthrow of that man, however, it did mean he was not a sustainable solution."
For his part, Congressman Menendez' said, "Well, Mr. secretary in the 20 seconds that I have left, let me simply say that we made a very clear message. Yes, we don't have to send troops each and every time, but we sent a very clear message (which was): 'You can go ahead and pursue your violent activity because unless there is a political solution we don't seek to intervene, either ourselves or through any international effort.' And that is a risk for democracy in our hemisphere."
Mr. Noriega told lawmakers Wednesday that while France decided to withdraw its political support from Mr. Aristide before the United States, there are now "no differences" in the U.S. and French positions.
In a separate hearing Wednesday, another official, Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs Elizabeth Jones, had this comment when asked about U.S. cooperation with France regarding Haiti.
She said, "Discussions between Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin were very cooperative and collaborative, exchanging information, what is the situation, what is the best thing for the international community to do? Obviously the Secretary was in touch with many other leaders in the region, in CARICOM (Caribbean Community), Canada, to discuss this as well, and the decisions that were made were made on the basis of their understanding of the situation on the ground."
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, maintain the administration knew that elements of the opposition to Mr. Aristide were criminals linked to past human rights violations, and did nothing to force them to lay down their arms. They are demanding a congressional investigation into the Bush administration's handling of the situation in Haiti.