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Haitian protest

Demonstrators march through Port-au-Prince on July 15, 2008, in support of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Uncovering Haiti’s Hidden History

More than four years after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile, questions linger about Washington’s involvement.

BY Judith Scherr

Unless the truth about the coup is uncovered, Congress will write off the Bush policy of regime change as an anomaly, says Lee.

A congressional bill that would create a truth commission to explore the U.S. role in the 2004 regime change in Haiti is languishing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee with only 12 co-sponsors. But Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) H.R. 331 has sparked hope among some Haitians who think the bill might pass under a friendly Obama administration and bring needed change to the indebted island nation.

Lee introduced the bill Jan. 8 without fanfare. She has brought the same bill to the U.S. House almost every year since 2004. It has never advanced out of committee.

The commission’s task would be to determine what happened on Feb. 29, 2004, and the months leading up to the removal of Haiti’s President Jean Bertrand Aristide, currently exiled in South Africa.

The official U.S. position goes something like this: In February 2004, an armed militia was poised to take over the capital, Port-au-Prince. To avoid a bloodbath, Aristide called on the Americans to airlift him and his wife to safety.

Aristide “left the country with our assistance, which he requested,” Mari Tolliver, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, told In These Times in August. (Karl Duckworth, spokesperson for the State Department, said that he could not comment on the U.S. role in Aristide’s departure, as the Obama State Department is doing a “complete evaluation of all the areas to see where we will be on issues.”)

Aristide tells a different story. He says that a rag-tag band of some 200 rebels strong-armed poorly equipped police stations in several Haitian towns, but posed no threat to the capital, the president or the central government. Aristide says American officials forced him to board a plane whose destination was unknown.

Congress has only once formally addressed the question of the U.S. role in the coup. On March 3, 2004, the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee held a hearing, providing the opportunity for Congress to question State Department officials. Those testifying were not under oath; there were no follow-up hearings.

The week following the hearing, Lee introduced her bill on the House floor, explaining that the purpose of the truth commission was to “find out more about the events leading up to President Aristide’s departure, the twilight activities of his alleged resignation, the current unconstitutional government, and the ongoing turmoil, fear, and misinformation that is still flowing out of Haiti.”

In 2004, 49 representatives co-sponsored the bill.

Nicole Lee, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group, is an attorney who, before the coup, lived in Haiti. Lee (no relation to the congresswoman) says one of the key functions of the commission would be to document the role of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in destabilizing the Haitian government. The nonprofit IRI is affiliated with the Republican Party and funded, in part, by the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which Congress partially funds “to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts,” according to the NED website.

“The International Republican Institute all along really fomented a lot of tension between the Democratic Convergence [the anti-Aristide party] and the government,” says Lee. “There were reports–and continue to be reports–that the IRI provided information and also provided funding and training to former Haitian military officials that ended up coming across the border with the Dominican Republic” leading to the February 2004 coup, she says.

Unless the truth about the coup is uncovered, Congress will write off the Bush policy of regime change as an anomaly, says Lee.

Meanwhile, the proposed bill has elicited response in Haiti. From exile, Aristide referenced the bill in a statement read recently on the radio by a representative: Lee’s bill leads us to believe that the new American administration will not support the coup d’état as was the case for the previous administration, the statement said.

Yvonne Zapzap heads the Families of Political Prisoners Collective and spoke by phone from Haiti through a translator. She says Haitians are aware of the bill and believe a truth commission would help end the lingering effects of the coup.

People voted for [current President René] Préval so that the political prisoners would be out of jail, but people are still in jail, she says, referring to supporters imprisoned without trial during the 2004 to 2006 U.S.-appointed interim government. The impacts of the coup are still present since Aristide was snatched from Haiti, she says.

TransAfrica Forum’s Lee puts it this way: “When Aristide was removed, water projects stopped, education projects stopped, healthcare clinics shut down. It wasn’t just about removing a leader, it was about destroying a real democracy. And that really needs to be accounted for.”

Judith Scherr is an independent journalist who has made four trips to Haiti. Her stories about that country have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Counterpunch, Z Magazine, the Berkeley Daily Planet, The Progressive magazine and the San Francisco Bay View, among others.

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