“The situation cannot afford Washington to sit on sidelines. They elected him and they need [sic] pressure him. He can't go unchecked,” Laura Graham, then the Chief Operating Officer of the Clinton Foundation, wrote to Bill Clinton in early 2012.
Graham was referring to the increasingly erratic, and potentially dangerous, behavior of Haitian president Michel Martelly. When she said “They elected him,” she was referring to the U.S. government, which intervened through the OAS to change Haiti's first round election results, putting Martelly into the second round. The e-mail – one of many Graham sent to Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff on Feb. 26, 2012 – was sent eventually to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her top aide, Cheryl Mills. The note is perhaps the clearest evidence to date that key officials, even within the Clinton camp, viewed the U.S. intervention in the 2010 Haitian election as decisive.
The 2010 Haitian election was a mess. Held less than a year after a devastating earthquake, millions of people were displaced or otherwise disenfranchised and then-president René Préval was accused of fraud on behalf of his preferred candidate, Jude Célestin. A majority of candidates held an afternoon press conference on election day denouncing the process and calling for new elections. But Washington and its allies, who had funded the election, pushed forward, telling the press that everything was okay. Mirlande Manigat, a constitutional law professor and former first lady, and Célestin came in first and second respectively, according to preliminary results, putting them into a scheduled run-off. Martelly was in third, a few thousand votes behind.
Protests engulfed the capital and other major cities, threatening the political stability that donors have long desired, but have failed to nurture. With billions in foreign aid on the table and Bill Clinton overseeing an international effort at “building back better,” there was a lot on the line: both money and credibility.
With Martelly’s supporters leading large, and at times violent, protests, the U.S. turned up the heat by publicly questioning the results just hours after they were announced. Within 24 hours, top State Department officials were already discussing with Haitian private sector groups plans to force Célestin out of the race. “[P]rivate sector have told RP [René Préval] that Célestin should withdraw … This is big,” then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Ken Merten wrote the next day. Merten wrote that he had personally contacted Martelly’s “camp” and told them that he needed to “get on radio telling people to not pillage. Peaceful demo OK: pillage is not.” Unfortunately, much of Merten’s message, and those in response, have been redacted.
Under Washington’s pressure, the Haitian government eventually requested that a mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) come to Haiti to analyze the results. The mission, despite not conducting a recount or any statistical test, recommended replacing Célestin in the runoff with Martelly. With the lowest turnout for a presidential election in the hemisphere’s recent history, and at least 12% of the votes simply missing, any decision on who should be in a second round would be based on faulty assumptions. (CEPR analyzed all the voter tally sheets at the time, conducting a statistical analysis of the vote, and later showed how the OAS recommendation could not be supported by any statistical evidence.)
Nevertheless, pressure began to mount on the Haitian government to accept the OAS recommendations. Officials had their U.S. visas revoked and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice even went so far as to threaten to cut aid, even though the country was still recovering from the devastating earthquake earlier in the year.
In late January 2011, two months after the elections, but before any decision had been made, Laura Graham wrote to top Hillary Clinton aide Cheryl Mills, warning that her boss, Bill Clinton [wjc] would be very upset if certain visas were pulled: "There are rumors abt ur second visa list and jmb [Prime Minister and co-chair of the Clinton-led reconstruction commission, Jean Max Bellerive] being on it. He's a conflicted guy and is being pressured on both sides and we believe trying to help. Wjc will be v unhappy if that's the case. Nor do I think u need remove his visa. Not sure what it gets u. Remove elizabeth's [Préval’s wife] and prevals people. I'm also staying at his house fyi so exposure in general and this weekend in particular for wjc on this."
In response, Mills questioned the “message it sends” for Graham to stay at Bellerive’s house, but Graham replied, indicating a certain coordination between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department in influencing Haitian politics: “For the record, I discussed staying at his house w both u and wjc long ago and was told good strategic value and I’ve [sic] stayed there every time.”
But being at Bellerive’s house, with a decision on the election coming any day, would send an inappropriate signal, Mills pointed out. “Think of all the rumors you have heard?” Mills asked, “that we want to pressure Célestin out when that is Brazilian and UN position,” she added as an example. There is no doubt that high-level Brazilian and UN officials were involved in the decision and efforts to exclude Célestin. Edmond Mulet, the head of the UN military mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), even privately suggested flying Préval out of the country on election day. But it was the U.S. that funded the OAS mission and that had been applying the most pressure on the Haitian government, and another e-mail from Graham to Mills a few days later confirms this. “I think you need to consider a message and outreach strategy to ensure that different elements of haitian society (church leaders, business, etc) buy into the mms solution and are out their [sic] on radio messaging why its [sic] good.”
The “mms solution” here surely refers to Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly being placed in the second round over Célestin, the scenario State Department officials and Haitian private sector groups had been discussing since the day after results were announced. “Seems to me IC [international community] needs a complimentary [sic] message-outreach strategy to support this solution,” Graham added, noting that the U.S. government was being made out as a “villain.”
A week earlier, a separate e-mail reveals, the Haitian government had proposed cancelling the elections, as many had been calling for, and running new ones, but the plan was rejected by the EU and U.S.. The international actors opted instead for the arbitrary removal of Célestin and moving forward with the “MMs,” two rightist political candidates who would support the “Haiti is open for business” slogan that emerged after the quake.
The e-mail from Graham came just days before Hillary Clinton would fly to Haiti, in the middle of the crisis in Egypt, to force the government’s hand. Mills forwarded Graham’s message to Hillary Clinton, with a note, “Let’s discuss this on the plane,” to which Hillary responded simply: “Bill talked to me about this and is quite worried about what I do and say tomorrow.”
“As we all are,” Mills responded, passing along talking points for the following day’s Haiti trip. “Ask him if he has any thoughts,” Mills wrote, in reference to Bill Clinton.
The next day Hillary Clinton traveled to Haiti and met with Préval. “We tried to resist and did, until the visit of Hillary Clinton. That was when Préval understood he had no way out and accepted” it, Bellerive told me in an interview last year. Martelly won in the second round, in which just over 20% of the electorate voted.
But the hoped-for political stability wouldn’t come so easy. After Martelly’s first two choices for prime minister failed to pass parliament, Garry Conille, who had previously served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff when Clinton was UN Special Envoy to Haiti, became prime minister in September 2011. E-mails reveal that Graham had been vetting potential prime minister picks as early as June 2011 and had suggested Conille. E-mails show State Department staff helped to sway parliamentarians on Conille, who was expected to be the partner that the international community needed in the Haitian government to help oversee the massive reconstruction underway. But it didn’t work out that way.
After just five months on the job, Conille resigned on Feb. 24, 2012. Two days later, Laura Graham wrote to Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, Jon Davidson. In the e-mail, written while she said she was with Conille, Graham expressed extreme frustration with Martelly and pointed the finger clearly at him for the resignation of Conille, who had begun investigating a number of high-profile reconstruction contracts involving Dominican firms. Graham also warned that the U.S. must step up and act to rein in Martelly, or risk the consequences, urging Bill Clinton to “convince” the U.S. government: "GC [Conille] believes that his resignation offers the IC [International Community] an opportunity to join in the chorus (media, business, civil society, parliament) of pressure on MM [Martelly]. He can no longer use GC as his obstacle. He has to act and show he's for democracy or there needs to be consequences. Waiting for this truck w[ith]o[ut] brakes to hit the bottom of the hill will be too late. You can be helpful in convincing USG and the IC."
Graham continued, suggesting Bill Clinton go forward with his investor trip to Haiti, but also use the time to pressure Martelly. Graham was also concerned that the State Department was going too easy on their new friend Martelly, whom they had helped elect: "The U.S. has to push here and I believe some at state, definitely Merten [US Ambassador], are advising a wait and see attitude. The situation cannot afford Washington to sit on sidelines. They elected him and they need [sic] pressure him. He can't go unchecked. Same thing with UN. Mariano Fernandez [top UN military official at the time] needs to act more like ‘mulet’ [UN official who helped oust Célestin] than the quiet peaceful guy he is."
Graham, having been in close communication with Mills and other high-level State Department staff, as well as Bill Clinton, who, as the e-mails clearly indicate, was kept well informed, was certainly in a position to know just how influential the U.S. intervention in the 2010 election was. “They elected him,” is as clear as it gets, though given previous e-mails, perhaps it would have been more accurate to say “We elected him.” But it’s clear that forcing her colleague Conille to resign had pushed Graham.
“MM [Martelly] wants GC [Conille] to leave the country,” she began another email later that same evening. Conille’s “life has and continues to be threatened by people associated with” Martelly, Graham added, and that Martelly “said himself he will do all it takes to take” Conille down. Once again, Graham questioned Merten’s stance regarding Martelly: "The U.S. – Cheryl [Mills] - promised him American backed security immediately but when he met with Merten yesterday Merten was not only in the mind frame of 'well MM is not such a bad guy and he's better than previous presidents' but he didn't discuss or offer any security. Every day, GC life and reputation are at risk. The U.S. and or the IC must go to MM and tell him that nothing is to happen to GC, not even a tree accidentally falling on him, or MM will face consequences."
A few minutes later Graham writes again, warning of Martelly’s efforts to form armed militias throughout the country: "I now have seen the actual intel from MINUSTAH [UN military force] and the evidence of the armed militia training throughout the country including evidence that the palace is funding and supporting it. I'm meeting with Mariano Fernandez tomorrow but GC shared with me this intel last night and its obvious from the documents and the pictures what is going on here."
“The evidence is clear as day and they have already begun parading in the streets with guns and chanting in carrefour (less than 1 hour from PaP [Port-au-Prince]) and other areas of the country,” Graham adds.
Finally, an hour later, Graham sends the last e-mail after viewing Conille’s preliminary audit, which “details the amount of corruption and the arrogance in they [sic] way they did it.” Graham continues: "It is the contracts that MM is saying he will come after GC with everything he's got to prevent the real details (presumably including his take) from coming out."
The next day, Oscar Flores, a long-time Clinton aide, forwards all of the messages to Mills and Hillary Clinton. “Pls print,” Clinton responds.
But despite Graham’s concerns and the apparent evidence of corruption and armed militias, the U.S. continued to stand by the Martelly administration. His term ended in February 2016, and Graham’s e-mail on Martelly’s lack of democratic credentials now reads especially prescient. After no elections were held during his first four years in office, Martelly began ruling by decree in January 2015. Presidential elections, held last fall, were so marred by fraud and irregularities that they were entirely scrapped (unlike the controversial elections in 2010), leaving Haiti without a democratically elected president. Once again, the U.S. argued for accepting the flawed elections and moving forward with a second round, this time between Martelly’s hand-picked successor and an old friend from 2010, Jude Célestin. But this time, the U.S. didn’t get their way ― entirely new elections are scheduled for this October.
The original version of this article was published on the Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).