Uncovering Haiti’s Hidden History

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

Judith Scherr

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

A con­gres­sion­al bill that would cre­ate a truth com­mis­sion to explore the U.S. role in the 2004 régime 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.

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

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 régime 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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