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Haitis Democracy in Flames

Powell’s dirty-dealing demolishes the tattered remnants of his credibility

Larry Birns

A demonstrator demands the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.

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In the fall of 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide officially left his position as a parish priest to embark on an unanticipated political career. Within weeks he became the most popular president in Haiti’s 200-year history. Aristide’s Lavelas Party, meaning flood,” referred both to the near-universal applause of Aristide’s fundamental tenets and the presumed cleansing effects it would have on remnants of the Duvalier dictatorship. Despite the country’s Provisional Electoral Council’s (CEP) approval of 11 presidential candidates for the 1990 elections, Aristide’s surge in polls was overwhelming. He won the first free and fair election in the country’s history with 67 percent of the vote.

Despite Aristide’s exultant inauguration, threats remained in the form of the Duvaliers’ still-menacing band of supporters and their Praetorian Guard — the Tontons Macoutes — not to mention the cabal of military plotters who seized power after Baby Doc fled the country. 

These groups, along with the country’s traditionally dominant economic elite (1 percent of the population controls 45 percent of the wealth), feared that Aristide’s radical agenda would curtail their opportunities for graft, corruption, drug trafficking and cronyism. They also were embittered by the CEP’s rejection of key associates of the Duvalier regime, such as Claude Raymond and Roger Lafontant, as qualified candidates for the 1990 presidential race. (The CEP’s action was based on the 1987 constitution’s provision barring any Duvalier-era officials from running for public office.) Those scorned by this process, together with a large percentage of the country’s severely compromised military, waited for the right moment to oust Aristide. This was accomplished in 1991 and again in late February. 

The Bush administration, less through confusion than by design, sent troops into Haiti on February 29, all but guaranteeing that this deeply scarred society will soon recuperate. While the villains who helped bring down Haiti’s constitutional rule will face the scrutiny of objective critics in the months and years to come, no reputation will be more tarnished than that of Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

In effect, Powell let U.S. Haiti policy become the captive of two of the administration’s most-obsessive right-wing ideologues — Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega (see Smear Campaign,” page 8) and White House aide Otto Reich. The two are backed by a White House that is more-than-eager to please the right wing Latin American émigré community in Miami. 

Reich, a Cuban exile, achieved infamy during the Reagan administration as head of the Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, where he employed Army psychological operations — psyops — specialists to try to convince the American public to support the U.S. backed Contras in their war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Bush nominated Reich to head the State Department’s Latin American desk, but couldn’t get him confirmed, so he hired him as a White House advisor. The job instead went to Noriega.

Powell’s Haitian policy was dazzlingly inept. Only days before Aristide was put on a plane February 29 for his State Department-arranged flight into exile in the Central African Republic, Powell repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy of Aristide’s rule and denounced the opposition’s violent thugs”. He further insisted that they would not be allowed to shoot their way to power nor would Aristide be forced to resign. Once engaged, Powell began insisting that the anti-Aristide political opposition must negotiate with the government and that Washington would not sanction regime change or insist upon Aristide’s forced ouster. Then, scarcely 24 hours before Aristide’s State Department-scripted travel arrangement, Powell reversed himself and ignored Haiti’s constitution, which stipulates that a president must convey his resignation only to the country’s legislature.

If Powell really meant what he said, then why didn’t he adhere to it? Aristide had done nothing to justify this 180 degree reversal in U.S. policy. Powell’s rhetoric appeared to represent the high road on the issue, but he was either deceiving the public or being undermined by Noriega and Reich, who, in off-the-record briefings to journalists and other interested parties, made it clear that regime change was very much an option and that Aristide could be muscled aside in any negotiation process.

When it came to Haiti, Powell’s defense of democracy was more apparent than real. To begin, the U.S. embassy in Port-Au-Prince was rarely merely a passive bystander to Haiti’s ongoing turmoil. In effect, Ambassador James Foley, as was the case with his recent predecessors at the Port-au-Prince post, saw his embassy as Fort Apache and the locals as restless Indians having to be kept in place by an agile embassy playmaker calling the shots. The cumulative result was that, by February, the space left to President Aristide to politically function continued to atrophy until his position had become all but untenable.

Similarly, in Venezuela two years ago, a failed coup was hatched against President Hugo Chávez thanks to the political backing and covert funding provided by Reich, the then-chief U.S. regional policymaker. In an indisputable contravention of its Organization of American States resolutions aimed at mandating democratic legitimacy throughout the hemisphere, the United States turned out to be the lead conspirator in the destruction of Haiti’s civil society. His ouster was the culmination of a U.S. foreign policy goal to eliminate or bypass Aristide, by draining him of his agenda-setting powers or, preferably, getting rid of them altogether, in order to void his inconvenient but undeniable democratic credentials.

In January, as the crisis began to mount and the political opposition became more clamorous in the streets of Port-Au-Prince, Washington’s end-game strategy to resolve Haiti’s political crisis began to take form. A U.S.-sanctioned international peace force would be introduced into Haiti but only to uphold a political agreement that would be fashioned between Aristide and the Port-Au-Prince-based political opposition, led by the businessmen-dominated Group of 184

The central credo of the latter body was to not, under any circumstance, carry on a dialogue with Aristide. And because there were to be no negotiations, there could be no agreement. But according to Powell’s formula, there would be no peacekeeping initiative unless such negotiations took place and a resolution achieved. 

Aristide had conceded to every demand made on him by the OAS, the European Union (especially France), the United Nations, the United States, and the English-speaking Caribbean nations to share power with the opposition, yet it was he who was repeatedly denounced by Powell and the international community for obstructionism, and rarely the opposition, which saw its vested interest intrinsically better served by chaos than peace. This was a solid strategy on the opposition’s part, because it knew it lacked the popularity to win the elections that successful talks inevitably would help bring about.

Powell’s thesis that a political solution must precede the arrival of a peace force was indefensible on grounds of logic. A peace force would be much more relevant while violence was occurring and the government was dangerously tottering, rather than after a peace agreement had been achieved. Brazil, Canada, Chile, France and for that matter, the United Nations and the OAS, signed on to Powell’s diktat strategy of taking no action until it was too late to save Haitian democracy. Powell blamed Aristide for dilly-dallying; however, it was he who purposefully used up the Aristide government’s precious remaining moments with inaction, even though there was time enough for the United States to demonstrate it meant to guarantee continued democratic rule.

Mexico’s silence over Haiti on the eve of President Vicente Fox’s visit to the Bush family ranch was sadly understandable, given the Mexican leader’s forlorn quest for U.S. immigration reform. But the silence of the region’s other heavy hitters was incomprehensible. One would expect languorous behavior from an already discredited OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, or from President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, whose military (which he is dispatching to Haiti) under General Augusto Pinochet routinely tortured and murdered anyone with a radical agenda similar to Aristide’s. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Lula de Silva was also preparing his troop contingents, while Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner chose to sit out of the controversy. Neither bothered to comment on comment on Powell’s preposterous formulations.

Canada’s new prime minister, Paul Martin, intent on improving relations with Washington, signed on to Powell’s formula for all-but-guaranteeing Aristide’s eventual ouster, never mind that such a policy ill-served his country’s reputation for having a less patronizing attitude toward the rest of the hemisphere. Ottawa’s supine accommodation to Powell’s elusive timetable for intervention was pathetic, in that the governing Liberal Party had not allowed its police trainers to remain in Haiti long enough back in 1994-96 to adequately professionalize the country’s security force.

At the end of the day, standing almost alone, Jamaica’s Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson, upheld the region’s honor by implicitly rebuking the timidity of other hemisphere leaders, in spite of the vulnerability of Jamaica’s sagging economy and its need for Washington’s financial backing.

Aside from Powell, the world leader most deserving of derision is French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. The French diplomat at first boldly confronted the rapidly deteriorating situation in Haiti by calling for urgent action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, but he then embraced Powell’s thesis that a political solution must precede dispatching any peace forces. 

U.S. Embassy authorities were able to thrust a resignation letter into an understandably-befuddled Aristide’s hands for him to sign. This was done under the implicit threat that only then could he and his family be flown out of the country to safety. Once airborne, Aristide was told that his ultimate destination would be the Central African Republic only a half-hour before his scheduled landing. He was denied any ability to communicate with the outside world. Nor was he told where he would be going during a four-hour layover. Such behavior exemplifies the utter contempt in which he was held by U.S. officials. Powell’s defense of this scenario was based on his now revised line that Aristide was a flawed” president who brought on his own downfall.

Today Haiti is a horrific mess, but it can’t entirely be attributed to President Aristide’s flawed performance.” If Aristide was flawed, it was largely due to the impossible conditions laid down by Washington for him to rule.

Powell had exacerbated Haiti’s last three years of strife and misery by caving into Noreiga and Reich’s Miami-bred zealotry and accepting their interpretation of events. He supported the continued freeze of $500 million in multilateral assistance to Haiti based on the exaggerations and distortion of what took place in the May 2000 senate elections, when Aristide was not president. Again, as he repeatedly had done in Iraq, Powell presented the American public with an entirely false picture of what caused Haiti’s political and economic difficulties.

There is no disputing that the extremism and mean-spirited nature of Washington’s Haitian policy prevented democratic practices from taking root on the island. Secretary of State Powell must be condemned for sponsoring a strategy that was superficial, illogical, narrowly conceptualized and damaging both to the U.S. national interest and Haiti’s most basic needs. The kind of human misery that has propelled tens of thousands of Haitians over the past decade to risk their lives trying to reach south Florida is not likely to be assuaged by forcing Haiti into a political process when it lacks popular natural leaders and when there are no reasons for the citizenry to trust their new U.S.-imposed officials. 

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Larry Birns is director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, www​.coha​.org COHA Research Associate Jill Shelly asssisted with this article.
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