(this article first appeared in the newspaper Haiti Liberté, in nine installments October-November 2007)
A little less than four years ago, in late February 2004, France, the US and a few other old ‘friends of Haiti’ called on the country’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign.
No doubt Haiti’s friends had their reasons. Following its landslide election victory in May 2000 Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party had proved that it was likely to dominate Haiti’s parliamentary democracy for the foreseeable future: after the rather less decisive election of George W. Bush later that same year, some of Aristide’s older friends in the US began taking newly energetic steps to undermine his administration. A couple of years later, when Aristide began asking France to repay the enormous amount of money that it had extorted from its former slave colony during the previous century, international responses to his government quickly evolved from routine hostility to outright aggression.
No-one disputes the fact that during his last few days in office, these same countries threatened Aristide with a ‘bloodbath’ if he chose to serve out the remainder of his term in office. Nor can anyone easily dispute the fact that by early 2004, Haiti’s oldest friends had done everything necessary to make such a threat look imminent and plausible. Even before he returned to office in February 2001, they had gone to considerable lengths to promote both a political and a paramilitary opposition to Aristide’s government, an opposition that adopted the elimination of Aristide as its very raison d’être. Relentless pressure from these opponents, combined with punitive economic measures implemented by their foreign patrons, eventually backed Aristide into a corner from which he couldn’t escape. By 28 February 2004, the area of the country that remained under the government’s direct control had shrunk to little more than greater Port-au-Prince. A small but well-armed and well-funded military force led by ex-soldiers Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain was apparently poised to attack the capital. The government’s rather less well-armed security forces were no longer reliable, and the international community had made it clear that it would only intervene once Aristide agreed to step down. Although there’s little chance that Philippe’s men could have taken the city on their own they might well have managed it, eventually, with suitable international support. The night of 28/29 February, the prospect of a bloodbath was real enough.
What’s more controversial ― and more likely to stay that way ― is what happened in the climactic hours just before Aristide left Haiti. With his back to the wall, did he choose to save his skin and accept a US offer for safe passage to a friendly third country? Or, on the contrary, was he forced to resign by hostile foreign troops before being led, manu militari, onto an American plane?
Did Aristide leap to safety, or was he pushed into captivity?
Representatives of the US government have spoken repeatedly and at length about what they say happened that night. People more sympathetic to the Lavalas government, by contrast, have had few occasions to present their side of the story in a systematic way. I’ve spoken now with several of the leading actors in this drama, and in what follows I present their testimony in the detail that this most controversial moment in recent Haitian history demands.
In my opinion it’s perfectly obvious, in fact blindingly obvious, that Aristide was pushed out. Aristide was pushed, and he was pushed by the one and only prospect that he was not prepared to confront ― the immediate prospect of overwhelming violence against unarmed civilians, coupled with the longer-term prospect of a debilitating civil war.
Aristide’s government wasn’t perfect, but its violent removal was an outrageous political crime. What complicates the picture, a little, is that it seems to have been Aristide himself who, at the last minute, managed to force his foreign enemies actually and overtly to push him out, by refusing to bow to their demands that he simply resign and leave on his own. Although he was unable to save his government in the face of implacable international hostility, Aristide could at least make sure that the world would see who had actually been responsible for its demise.
Before it can see this, however, the world will have to open its eyes.
I The ‘Big Lie’
Let’s consider, to begin with, the explanation offered by the people who claim to have rescued Aristide. The US-French account of what happened on the night of 28 February is pretty straightforward. US Secretary of State Colin Powell and US Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley (echoed by the French foreign minister Dominique De Villepin and his ambassador Thierry Burkard) say that as the international community began to turn its back on him, even so intractable and violent an autocrat as Aristide could see he was doomed. They say that as Guy Philippe’s small group of ex-army rebels started to overrun isolated police stations in Haiti’s provincial towns and cities, Aristide realised that his ‘bandit’ militias were no match for their erratic but ruthless firepower. They say that as a few parts of Port-au-Prince descended into anarchy on 26-27 February, his nerve cracked.
Colin Powell and James Foley say, then, that on the evening of Saturday 28 February Aristide sent out a desperate appeal for help to the American embassy. Foley says that Aristide asked him for a way out that would ‘guarantee his security’ and ‘protect his property’. Foley also says that he and his colleagues ‘were completely stunned’ by Aristide’s request. ‘We had not the slightest inkling that he would be prepared to leave, on that day’, so Aristide’s sudden decision to flee ‘caught us totally off-guard.’ Powell’s Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega too ‘found it rather remarkable that Aristide decided to leave, and throughout the evening on Saturday, I wholly expected that he would change his mind because he has been proven to be erratic and unreliable.’
According to Ambassador Foley and his versatile deputy Luis Moreno, Aristide made a perfectly free and voluntary choice. ‘Aristide was not persuaded at all’, remembers Foley. ‘He decided himself to leave. He feared he faced death if he could not get out.’ Since Philippe’s rebels were apparently ready to advance on Port-au-Prince, Foley admits that his government shared these fears. ‘We feared that in that confrontation the president would be killed’, and therefore the US resolved to mount a last-minute operation to save his life. (In fact, on 17 February Foley himself had dismissed Philippe’s troop as a small group of people who had ‘no real support’; Foley’s immediate boss Roger Noriega likewise derided them as ‘a dozen losers’).
No doubt the US could have done a few other things to prevent so fatal a confrontation. They could have endorsed CARICOM’s urgent appeal to the UN for the deployment of a hundred or so international peacekeepers, for instance, or they could have simply instructed Guy Philippe’s men to lay down their M16s and return to their US-sanctioned exile in the Dominican Republic. But as Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson later explained, rather than discourage Philippe and his ‘ragtag band’, Foley preferred instead to talk ‘with President Aristide; he confronted him with the situation that he was going to meet on the morn, so to speak, confronted him with the devastation that was likely to take place, and President Aristide, to his credit, made the decision to take Ambassador Foley's offer and to leave the country.’ As far as the world’s most powerful democracy was concerned, Wilkerson said, it was clearly the elected president rather than the ex-military insurgent who needed to leave his country. ‘Aristide was the focal point. Aristide was the person who needed to be removed from Haiti, and even he understood that. In the conversation he had with our ambassador, he understood that. He knew that he was the lightning rod, and that if he didn't remove himself from the island, there was going to be a lot of bloodshed.’
Embroidering a little more on his story, Ambassador Foley says that he spoke with Aristide at least four times during that Saturday night. He says ‘I told him how very sad I thought it was that this is happening. It was a very sad series of conversations.’ Foley remembers that ‘Aristide “never challenged our position” that there would be a bloodbath if he did not leave.’ He remembers that ‘what was surprising was Aristide’s passivity and philosophical resignation. My own feeling was that Aristide had already decided to leave. He didn’t need convincing.’ Perhaps he had come to share Foley’s candid assessment of his ‘horrendous’ legacy.
Stunned or not, a saddened US government quickly arranged for Aristide’s safe transport out of Haiti, on a plane that took off from a US-occupied Port-au-Prince airport around 6:15 am on the morning of Sunday 29 February. According to Foley, in addition to a reinforced troop of US Marines already present in Port-au-Prince an elite six-member US army team arrived to coordinate the operation ‘with Aristide's security personnel, including the head of his bodyguards from the California-based Steele Foundation’, David Johnson. Foley’s deputy Luis Moreno says that together with the newly arrived US personnel he accompanied Aristide and his wife to the airport. Like his boss, Moreno too felt sad. ‘“I expressed sadness that I was here to watch him leave,” he told the Washington Post on 2 March. “Sometimes life is like that,” Aristide replied.’ At some point before he left, Aristide was induced to sign a letter which, as far as his US minders were concerned, appeared to provide constitutional grounds for a democratic transition. ‘The constitution must not be written with the blood of the Haitian people’, it read. ‘If my resignation prevents the shedding of blood, I agree to leave.’ And then Moreno ‘shook his hand and he went away.’
Since the US sought only to protect him, it allowed the fugitive to pick his own destination. The US says that Aristide chose the safety of Bangui, in the Central African Republic ― he would be safer there, presumably, than in a lawless place like Miami, or in openly supportive neighbouring countries like Venezuela, Jamaica or Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. ‘We did not force him on to the airplane’, Colin Powell insisted on 1 March; ‘he went onto the airplane willingly, and that is the truth.’ George Bush’s spokesman Scott McClellan likewise insisted that Aristide’s departure was ‘entirely his decision’, and that the decision to go to the Central African Republic was also ‘his choice, the choice of the country to which he would choose to travel.’ McLellan had a little more to say about the Haitian people and their choices:
Conspiracy theories do nothing to help the Haitians move forward to a better, more prosperous future [...]. We are working on what is in the best interest of the Haitian people, as expressed by the Haitian people [...]. We achieved a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional resolution to the situation in Haiti [...]. Let’s put this in context. Sometimes people lose faith in their leaders [...]. Aristide was not adhering to his democratic principles that were enshrined in the constitution [but] we now have a democratic constitutional process that is working, that is moving forward. So we helped preserve a democratic and constitutional government by the action that we took, along with the international community.
On Monday March 1st, Colin Powell firmly rejected Aristide’s frantic insistence that he had been kidnapped by US troops. ‘I was intimately involved in this situation all through Saturday night’, Powell explained.
The first call we received from security people of President Aristide, people who work for him who contacted our security people, and there was a question about their ability to continue protecting him. And he wanted to discuss with our Ambassador the possibility of departure and he had several questions that he put to our Ambassador.
The Ambassador consulted with me and Assistant Secretary Noriega by telephone. We told him he could take the call and see what President Aristide had in mind. And he talked about protection of property, protection of his personal property, his ― property of some of his ministers, and would he have some choice as to where he was going if he decided to leave.
We gave him answers to these questions, positive answers. And then in the course of the evening, other conversations took place. He said he wanted to think about it, he wanted to speak to his wife, which he did. And he came back to us and said that it was his decision, based on what his security people were also telling him about the deteriorating situation, that he should leave.
(It may not be unreasonable to judge Powell’s ‘positive answers’ to Aristide’s various questions according to the one that Powell himself chose to emphasise here ― the protection of Aristide’s property. Powell’s positive answer to this question is easily verified. It involved the immediate withdrawal of all security from Aristide’s house, thereby allowing it to be comprehensively looted and trashed for several days. It remains an empty shell to this day. Around 7am on 29 February, the house in which Aristide’s prime minister Yvon Neptune was staying suffered the same fate, obliging him to spend the next twelve nights on the floor of his office. Back in 1994, by contrast, the US didn’t just protect the property of the dictatorial general Raoul Cédras, they actually rented a couple of his houses for several months).
A couple of days later, Powell’s spokesman reasserted the same basic line, in the face of muted calls for an inquiry from CARICOM and the congressional Black Caucus. ‘There was no kidnapping, there was no coup, there were no threats’, so ‘there’s nothing to investigate [...]. We did not advocate his stepping down.’ Instead, ‘we ended up rescuing him by taking him out of the country in the face of almost certain violence [...]. Now that we are where we are, the focus needs to be on moving forward.’
Broadly speaking, the mainstream press accepted, and still accepts, this official US explanation more or less at face value. But leaving aside the tricky question about whether it was Aristide (winner of 92% of the vote in 2000) or Philippe (winner of 2% of the vote in 2006) who might most reasonably be held responsible for the imminent prospect of a bloodbath in Haiti, there are still a few awkward problems with the US version of events.
In the first place, if Aristide’s decision to resign was a simple matter of free choice, it’s at least a little puzzling that he chose to exercise his freedom in such remarkable solitude and haste. All through February 2004 Aristide repeatedly insisted on his determination to serve out the remainder of his term in office, and he never seems to have told anyone, including his closest political allies and friends, up until midnight or 1am on the morning of Sunday 29 February, that he was even prepared to consider leaving office before his mandate came to an end in February 2006. The last time his chief legal counsellor Ira Kurzban managed to speak with him was on the morning of Saturday 28 February, and there wasn’t so much as a hint that Aristide had begun to toy with the idea of resignation. His international press secretary Michelle Karshan was away in the Dominican Republic that weekend but received a note from Aristide’s wife Mildred the night of 28 February, a note that simply discussed new proposals for moving forward in another round of negotiations with the political opposition ― again there wasn’t a whisper about resignation. Late that night, members of Aristide’s entourage confirmed long-standing arrangements for a series of interviews at the National Palace (with Tavis Smiley and George Stephanopoulos, among others) planned for the following day. ‘Several of us were in touch with [Aristide...] until very late Saturday night,’ confirmed Jamaican Prime Minister and CARICOM chairman P.J. Patterson. ‘Nothing that was said to us indicated that the president was contemplating a resignation.’ Without exception, Aristide’s closest allies and confidants all testify to the same point.
In the second place, given US insistence on the free and voluntary nature of this resignation, it’s quite puzzling that the US itself chose to arrange it in utter secrecy, in the middle of the night, apparently in the absence of any cameras or reporters or any sort of independent witness who might later have been able to confirm its voluntary qualities to a (predictably?) suspicious Haitian electorate. When reporter David Adams asked Foley and Moreno about this, they candidly explained that it was a simple mistake, an oversight due to the fact that the rescue operation had to be mounted at great speed and with only a skeleton staff. Perhaps no one in the US embassy had yet managed to find the time to plan for the aftermath of an event they had actively pursued for several years. Perhaps this same lack of preparation helps to account for the fact that Foley was prepared to accept such a strangely worded and enigmatic ‘letter of resignation.’ But when dealing with so ‘momentous an event as the resignation of a President’, notes lawyer Brian Concannon, ‘common sense would require a clear statement that demonstrates an unequivocal and freely-made decision to resign. Instead, this letter seems closer to something written by someone who did not intend to resign, but was not free to express that intention.’
It’s still more puzzling that Aristide himself would have chosen the Central African Republic as his preferred place of refuge. CAR is a violent, dictatorial and heavily policed client state of Aristide’s most implacable international enemy, France, and as soon as he arrived he was effectively kept under house arrest and blocked from virtually all access to the media or the telephone. For someone in Aristide’s position the advantages of CAR over a place like Jamaica, say, are not obvious. Powell and Noriega hastened to explain that Aristide’s ‘first choice’ had been South Africa. Regrettably, however, they said that after his plane was already making its way across the Atlantic, Thabo Mbeki ― Aristide’s staunchest international ally ― suddenly reneged on an initial promise to grant him temporary asylum, obliging the US to spend around a dozen dreary hours looking for an alternative destination. The New York Times and other papers dutifully reported this intriguing assertion as fact, and some reporters continue to repeat it to this day, on the sole basis of Foley’s say-so. But both Aristide and his pilot and confidant Frantz Gabriel (who accompanied the Aristides into exile on 29 February) insist that they never asked South Africa for asylum. Gabriel says that when he was led onto the plane Aristide ‘had no idea know where he was going.’ Aristide’s friend Randall Robinson spoke with the South African foreign minister on the afternoon of Sunday 29 February, and was told ‘we haven't heard anything from [Aristide]. We don't know where he is, and there's been no request for asylum.’ On 2 March Dumisani Kumalo, the South African ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed that Aristide had never requested request asylum or exile in South Africa, and that the South African government had ‘not denied him amnesty or exile as alleged by the US State Department and The New York Times.’ A few weeks after his expulsion from Haiti, South African president Thabo Mbeki welcomed Aristide with open arms, and continues to welcome him there to this day.
It’s also rather puzzling, if Aristide really did opt to flee Haiti out of fears for his own security, that his French and American friends didn’t just leave his reasonably competent and well-connected team of Steele Foundation security guards to fly him out on their own.
II A surprise attack?
Since neither the French and American governments nor their representatives in the media have yet managed to come up with convincing answers to these questions, some Aristide loyalists prefer to make sense of what happened on 28/29 February along rather different lines. They assume that as their president was preparing to defend Port-au-Prince against Guy Philippe’s assault, US troops suddenly burst into his house at Tabarre and captured him. They assume that Aristide was the powerless victim of a surprise attack. Aristide’s old friend and counsellor Randall Robinson was in regular touch with him all through the events of February, and after speaking to him on March 1st insisted that ‘Aristide did not resign. He was kidnapped and all of the circumstances seem to support his assertion. Had he resigned, we wouldn't need blacked out windows and blocked communications and military taking him away at gunpoint. Had he resigned, he would have been happy to leave the country. He was not. He resisted. Emphatically not. He did not resign. He was abducted by the United States: a democratically elected president, abducted by the United States in the commission of an American induced coup. This is a frightening thing to contemplate.’
This explanation is certainly much closer to the real situation and the real balance of forces in Haiti than the absurd story invented by Foley and Moreno. It’s perfectly clear that on the evening of 28 February, Aristide was confronted with the immediate prospect of death, both for himself, his wife and for thousands of his supporters. It’s clear that the Franco-US alliance forced him out of the country at gunpoint, not just figuratively but very literally; according to a well-placed source in Port-au-Prince, if the US can in some sense be said to have ‘rescued’ Aristide from immediate danger that night, it may well have been from the danger of imminent assassination planned by people working on behalf of the French embassy.
But an overly literal version of this abduction scenario has its problems too. During the last week of February, although he called on the population to remain vigilant, Aristide doesn’t appear to have made well-developed plans to defend Port-au-Prince against Philippe’s little group of insurgents. Aristide chose to spend the weekend of 28/29 February at his suburban house in Tabarre, rather than in the more easily defended National Palace. On the night of 28 February itself, Aristide seems to have taken no steps to mobilise his supporters to protect his house against the prospect of imminent attack. At some point during the night of 28 February, it seems that Aristide or someone close to Aristide dismissed at least some of his Haitian security guards. He then chose to spend the rest of that night alone, and mainly on the phone, trying to talk a way out of the crisis. Some time after the time Moreno and his Delta-Force escort arrived at Aristide’s house, around 4am, it appears that Aristide was induced to accept what was already a fait accompli, and had bowed to inflexible Franco-US demands that he resign before dawn. According to one of his Haitian security guards, Casimir Chariot, the men who accompanied Moreno ‘were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces. These were not people who came with handcuffs to handcuff the president. These were men who came to assure the security of the delegation. It was all done very calmly.’ When Aristide was escorted out of the house by Moreno a little later, around 5am, although it’s not clear that he expected to be taken straight to the airport ― neither he nor his wife Mildred took any belongings with them, apart from the president’s briefcase and the small overnight bag that Mildred always took with her on trips between the Palace and Tabarre ― it seems that he was at least prepared to join the US ambassador at an early morning press conference to explain the situation to the nation.
Was Foley right, then, when he insisted on the eve of his own departure from Haiti (in August 2005), that Aristide’s claim to have been kidnapped was a simple fabrication?
He was not kidnapped. He is lying. He asked me to call him. He asked for the help of the United States [...] He begged me – everyone knows Washington does not keep secrets, there are always leaks to the press – he begged me “no leaks, please. If this news is known, I run the risk of not being able to get to the airport. If people in my entourage know that I am getting ready to leave, I will have difficulty.” Afterwards, certain members of his security staff were sent on phoney missions so they would not be around. In Tabarre, where “chimères” mounted barricades every night, they were asked to leave that night. There were many phone calls to friends to inform them of his departure and to invite some to join him. All this is to say that it is a big lie.
As we’ll see in a moment, some of the circumstantial details of Foley’s account do appear to be correct. By around 3 or 4am the morning of 29 February, it seems as if Aristide had indeed ‘agreed’, if not to leave Haiti, at least to participate in a process that could easily lead to his expulsion from the country.
Around 24 hours later, on Monday 1 March, when an exhausted and semi-coherent Aristide was himself given the chance to explain what had happened, he told CNN that he’d been the victim of ‘modern kidnapping’. He said he’d fallen prey to a ‘modern coup d’état’, one based more on the imminent threat of violence than the literal use of force. ‘I was told that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I better leave. And under a kind of diplomatic cover, they talked to me. And military talked to me. American agents talked to me. Haitian agents talked to me. And I finally realized it was true. We were going to have bloodshed. And when I asked how many people may get killed, they said thousands may get killed [...] They told me in a clear and blunt way that thousands of people will get killed once they start. So I had to do my best to avoid that bloodshed. They used [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to push me out. That’s why I call it again and again a coup d’état.’ CNN’s Anderson Cooper pressed him again on this point, later in the same programme:
[Cooper] Are you saying that you wish you were still ― that if it was up to you, you would still be on the ground in Haiti, that you did not leave of your own free will?
[Aristide]: Exactly that. [...].
[Cooper]: Mr. Aristide, I am having trouble reconciling the two statements, the statements that you have made and the statement the US government has made through Secretary Colin Powell, who, again, has said that you were not kidnapped, that we, the United States, did not force you on to the airplane, that you went on to the airplane willingly. And they say that is the truth. You say ― your story is categorically the opposite of that.
[Aristide]: Of course, because I am telling you the truth.
A few days later, when Aristide provided (via a concealed cell phone) what would prove to be his most detailed account of what happened on 28/29 February, he again emphasised the immediate threat of violence, reinforced by de-facto US military control, as the decisive factor. It’s worth quoting this hastily translated account almost in full:
The 28th of February, at night, suddenly, American military personnel who were already all over Port-au-Prince descended on my house in Tabarre to tell me first that all the American security agents who have contracts with the Haitian government only have two options. Either they leave immediately to go to the United States, or they fight to die. Secondly, they told me the remaining 25 of the American security agents hired by the Haitian government who were to come in on the 29th of February as reinforcements were under interdiction, prevented from coming. Thirdly, they told me the foreigners and Haitian terrorists alike, loaded with heavy weapons, were already in position to open fire on Port-au-Prince. And right then, the Americans precisely stated that they will kill thousands of people and it will be a bloodbath. That the attack is ready to start, and when the first bullet is fired nothing will stop them and nothing will make them wait until they take over, therefore the mission is to take me dead or alive.
At that time I told the Americans that my first preoccupation was to save the lives of those thousands of people tonight. As far as my own life is concerned, whether I am alive or whether I am dead, that is not what’s important. As much as I was trying to use diplomacy, the more the pressure was being intensified for the Americans to start the attack. In spite of that, I took the risk of slowing down the death machine to verify the degree of danger, the degree of bluff or the degree of intimidation.
It was more serious than a bluff. The National Palace was surrounded by white men armed up to their teeth. The Tabarre area ― the residence ― was surrounded by foreigners armed to their teeth. The airport of Port-au-Prince was already under the control of these men. After a last evaluation I made during a meeting with the person in charge of Haitian security in Port-au-Prince, and the person in charge of American security, the truth was clear. There was going to be a bloodbath because we were already under an illegal foreign occupation which was ready to drop bodies on the ground, to spill blood, and then kidnap me dead or alive.
That meeting took place at 3 a.m. Faced with this tragedy, I decided to ask, “What guarantee do I have that there will not be a bloodbath if I decided to leave?”
In reality, all this diplomatic gymnastics did not mean anything because these military men responsible for the kidnapping operation had already assumed the success of their mission. What was said was done. This diplomacy, plus the forced signing of the letter of resignation, was not able to cover the face of the kidnapping.
Now in principle the difference between Aristide’s ‘truth’ and Foley’s ‘big lie’ shouldn’t be too difficult for the world to understand, since it is simply the difference between freedom and compulsion. Foley is only entitled to say that Aristide freely ‘agreed to leave’ Haiti the night of 28/29 February if he can explain how exactly an agreement prompted by the threat of an imminent bloodbath can be described a free and voluntary one. Aristide ‘chose’ not to commit suicide, and he decided not to lead his supporters into a war that they were ill-prepared to fight. This was indeed a decision, of a kind. But as Patrick Elie insists ‘it was still a kidnapping, there’s no doubt about that. Somebody came up with an apt comparison: it’s as if you push someone back into their house, then you nail all the windows shut, and throw a Molotov cocktail inside. Then when he comes running out of the door you say he came out “of his own free will.” That’s ridiculous. He could have stayed inside and died. Instead he came out, ok ― but it certainly wasn’t of his own free will.’
In 2004 as in 1991, Aristide refused to engage his enemies directly on their chosen military terrain. But at the point where diplomatic push came to military shove, the night of 28/29 February, there was at least one thing that Aristide remained free to do: he could still oblige his enemies to drive out to Tabarre and burn down his house.
III The Background
To make proper sense of what happened exactly on the night of 28 February we first need to bear in mind some of the factors that had brought Aristide’s government to the edge of this precipice.
1. To begin with, we need to remember who was behind the immediate threat of a bloodbath. We need to remember that the military insurgency led by Philippe and long-time CIA asset and ex-FRAPH commander Jodel Chamblain was working in close cooperation with the so-called ‘democratic opposition’ led by unelectable politicians like Evans Paul, Serge Gilles, Himmler Rébu and other members of the US- and French-backed ‘Convergence Démocratique’, along with leading figures in various US-backed ‘civil society’ organisations like Andy Apaid’s ‘Group of 184’. Aristide’s political party Fanmi Lavalas had overwhelmed its rivals in the elections of 2000, and it’s obvious that the sole political function of these opponents was to embroil the government in futile negotiations for a settlement that they were never prepared to accept. From 2001 to 2004 they rejected more than twenty internationally-mediated resolutions to the deadlock, and on each occasion the US and the rest of the international community invoked the government’s ‘failure to reach an agreement with the opposition’ as a pretext for withholding desperately needed loans and aid.
In several radio broadcasts and other recent interviews, Guy Philippe has described the nature of his close financial and operational collaboration with the US-backed political opposition to Aristide in compelling detail. Towards the end of 2004 Philippe’s less diplomatic colleague ex-corporal Ravix Rémissainthe began making still more incriminating allegations about their erstwhile political associates, and eventually paid for his indiscretion with his life. According to Ravix and Philippe, all of the most notorious incidents that opposition leaders tried to pin on a tyrannical government ― the attack on the National Palace 17 December 2001, the hit-and-run raids in and around Belladère in 2002-2003, the sabotage of the Boutilliers radio transmitters on 13 January 2004, etc. ― were in fact commissioned by these very opposition leaders themselves. To pretend that the US and France were not in effective control of this insurgency, if only through the mediation of long-time clients like Evans Paul and Serge Gilles, would be hopelessly naïve. It would be still more naïve to assume that such an insurgency could have been prepared and organised over a couple of years, mainly in the heavily policed US-client state the Dominican Republic, without the knowledge, approval and encouragement of the US itself.
In late January 2004, CARICOM helped to broker the latest in a long series of diplomatic solutions to the ‘deadlock’ between Aristide and his political opponents. As usual, the deal was immediately accepted by Aristide but rejected by his opponents. There can be little doubt that the insurgency which began in Gonaïves on 5 February 2004 was timed in order to distract attention from CARICOM’s awkwardly straightforward approach to the impasse: power-sharing and a further round of elections. It’s also clear that the timing of the insurgency’s most significant operation, the assault on Cap-Haïtien on Sunday 22 February, was likewise determined so as to scuttle the last diplomatic attempt to break the deadlock ― yet another power-sharing proposal, this time proposed by Roger Noriega and vigorously endorsed by Colin Powell himself. This deal too was immediately accepted by Aristide but again rejected by the opposition, leaving the latter, as Robinson puts it, ‘in the embarrassing position of having to reject the president’s acceptance of its own offer.’
By 28 February, Philippe and Chamblain had several hundred well-armed men under their command in and around Cap-Haïtien, and were in a position to recruit hundreds more. Although they weren’t yet strong enough to take Port-au-Prince in a direct assault, they were certainly well-placed to attack the city in conjunction with behind-the-scenes international support. In particular, they were well-placed to attack the city in conjunction with external support and massive defections from inside the government’s dwindling security forces.
2. This is the second point: in early 2004, how reliable were these security forces? Ever since 1995, when Aristide demobilised the army that overthrew him in 1991 and replaced it with a new civilian police force, his enemies had taken predictable but elaborate steps to infiltrate the new government’s fragile security apparatus. In a series of important articles published in The Nation in 1994/95, Allan Nairn documented the beginning of this process in some detail. Retired US sergeant Stan Goff led a special forces team in Haiti in the autumn 1994, and confirms that the CIA was actively recruiting sympathetic members of the former military and the new civilian police all through 1994 and 1995. The infiltration was systematic, particularly in the quasi-military units ― the SWAT team, the anti-riot (CIMO) team, the Anti-Gang unit, and the presidential guard (USGPN, or Unité de Sécurité Générale du Palais National). By the time it was formally established in the middle of 1995, the Haitian National Police already ‘had untold numbers of people who were on the US payroll, or being prepared to be on the payroll’. When Goff visited Haiti that same year he met with colleagues from the 3rd US Special Forces group, ODA 344, who had been responsible for training the new presidential guard; they were already boasting that ‘the guys that we trained will be the guys that lead the next coup.’
In September 1996 the New York Times noted that while most of its troops had left Haiti, ‘the United States continues to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of this country ― and reliant on the unilateral application of force to achieve its objectives [...]. The United States seems to be mounting a parallel security and support system, with Haiti’s reluctant compliance’, in order to turn the country into what one diplomat described as ‘an American protectorate’. When Préval’s security chief Bob Manuel organised a purge of the presidential guard after exposing new coup and assassination plans in the summer of 1996, for instance, some 40 State Department security agents were sent to Haiti in order to help shape the inflection USGPN and to limit the influence of Aristide loyalists within the security forces. In February 1999, no less a person than the director of the Justice Department’s police training programme (ICITAP) in Haiti, Jan Stromsem, was forced out of her job, after denouncing repeated CIA efforts to recruit new police trainees.
Meanwhile many leading figures in the USGPN and other elite PNH units owed their position to the mediation of a small number of army officers that Aristide had relied on to oversee the creation of an interim police force in early 1995, most notably ex-major Dany Toussaint and his associate ex-captain Joseph Médard. In March 2004, right after Aristide’s departure, well-connected journalists still described Dany as ‘the great specialist in everything to do with security and armed force in Haiti.’ Though nominally a member (and later a senator) in Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, it’s clear that at some point in the late 1990s ― if not as early as his 1997 arrest in Miami ― Dany Toussaint began actively working against the interests of Lavalas in general and of Aristide in particular. Although his official break with Aristide’s government came only in December 2003, Aristide believes that Toussaint had been working for his opponents for years. Aristide’s pilot and advisor Frantz Gabriel reckons that Toussaint began working for ‘the Company’ in the late 1990s, and that he remains on the CIA payroll to this day. Toussaint himself told journalist Michael Deibert that ‘he and Aristide had been in “a cold war” since the May 2000 elections, when Aristide had put word out among the young political militants in the slums who had supported Toussaint’s 2000 senatorial campaign to no longer rally for the senator in public.’
In late 2003 Dany Toussaint was in a powerful position to undermine the Aristide government. Among other things he was a close friend of Guy Philippe’s chief advisor and fund-raiser Paul Arcelin, and he provided advice and assistance both for Philippe’s group and for the Gonaïves rebels led by Buteur Métayer and Winter Etienne. More importantly, when the time came, Dany Toussaint helped ensure that leading members of the USGPN, SWAT and CIMO units would rally in support of Chamblain and Philippe, rather than Aristide. By mid 2003, meanwhile, it was clear that other members of Aristide’s security team ― people like Fourel Celestin and Pierre Chérubin, and regional police commander Hermione Léonard ― were becoming increasingly corrupt and increasingly involved in drug smuggling (notably via association with the extravagant drug boss Jacques Kétant), and thus increasingly vulnerable to covert forms of pressure and influence. In the summer of 2003, under pressure from the US DEA, Aristide was obliged to remove some of his key security personnel from their posts, including palace security chief Oriel Jean.
Back in February 2001, when Aristide returned to power, it was already obvious that the USGPN was unreliable at best, actively hostile at worst. The removal that month of some of the most obviously unreliable officers, including Youri Latortue and Chavre Milot, was not enough to reorient the deeply infiltrated unit. An open assault on the National Palace on 17 December 2001, led in part by this same Chavre Milot (in concert with Guy Philippe and his lieutenant Ravix Rémissainthe), was conducted with the brazen cooperation of the USGPN. A detailed OAS report on the attack noted that ‘the assailants took the principal building without resistance from the guards’, and that the whole operation relied on ‘complicity within the National Police’. By the end of 2003 and particularly in the wake of the ongoing standoff in Gonaïves, notes Yvon Neptune, it was obvious that ‘very few members of the national security forces deserved to be trusted. They had been corrupted by members of civil society, and by representatives of some foreign governments. There can be no doubt about this. André Apaid and Charles Baker themselves made public statements about this at the time, saying that they had people in the police force who were working with them.’ A well-placed PNH source told me in March 2007 that in the months before Aristide’s expulsion ‘there were scores if not hundreds of police men who had aligned themselves with Guy Philippe.’ Frantz Gabriel suspects that deputy USGPN commander Wilson Casséus, for instance, was working in concert with Guy Philippe at least several months before the government fell. Casséus certainly cooperated with Philippe’s men when they moved into Port-au-Prince on 1 March 2004, and shortly afterwards Casséus was promoted to commander of the post-Aristide USGPN.
The USGPN wasn’t the only security force that Aristide had to reckon with. There was also a much smaller, ‘Secret Service’ style unit of personal security guards (the Unité de Sécurité Présidentielle, or USP) assigned to the president, the prime minister and their families. The members of this unit, however, were vulnerable to exactly the same sort of pressures and enticements as those that confronted the USGPN, and Aristide didn’t wholly trust them either. According to Aristide’s foreign press secretary Michelle Karshan, there was considerable resentment and tension among members of the unit after Aristide chose the controversial Barthélémy Valbrun to replace Oriel Jean as its commander in mid-2003; a police source currently based in Miami reports that ‘many members of the USP say that Barthélémy knew in advance that Aristide would be kidnapped.’ According to Frantz Gabriel, by early 2004 it was clear that Aristide’s enemies could rely on some ‘internal complicity within the USP, motivated by cash or US visas.’
This is the main reason why, back in the late 1990s, presidents Préval and Aristide had decided to retain a third strand to their convoluted security system ― a small number of international security guards, hired through the San Francisco-based Steele Foundation. The history of this arrangement goes back to 1994. When the US allowed Aristide to return to Haiti in 1994, they provided him with diplomatic security. This task was soon taken over by a team of security guards led by David Johnson, a veteran of the US Army's Protective Services Unit; when Johnson joined the private US company Steele Foundation in 1998, Steele took on the contract to provide protection for Préval and Aristide. Johnson remained the commanding officer of the Steele detachment through to February 2004.
Retention of Steele’s services was controversial from the beginning. ‘I tell you those Steele guys were a catastrophe in many ways’, says Aristide’s veteran security advisor Patrick Elie. ‘They were extremely arrogant, even to the point of violence with everyday people in the street. They were terrible for Aristide’s PR. Not only were they unreliable, but their image was very bad. He should have got rid of the Steele Foundation people before his re-election.’ Along these lines, some Aristide supporters think he should have looked for an alternative source of protection elsewhere, either in a new home-grown force or else in a company based in Latin America or Europe. In the wake of the December 2001 attack on the National Palace, however, Aristide’s chief legal counsellor considered the various options and concluded that Steele remained the best available choice:
Upon Aristide's return in 1994, he was provided diplomatic security, the kind the US government currently provides in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dave Johnson was working for diplomatic security either directly or on a contract basis. In 1998 diplomatic security said we can no longer perform this function and worked with us to set up a bidding mechanism to get a private company involved. We did put out a bid. Two companies answered and we wound up with Steele. I thought they were quite good until February 2004, when they were clearly pressured by the US. At the end and at other times I did look for other companies but the situation was quite complicated both financially and in terms of trusting someone else. The US always wanted us to rely on Haitian security, so they could buy them off when they needed to. Look at Youri Latortue [USGPN deputy commander in early 2001]. If you had a choice between Youri as your security or the Steele Foundation, which would you pick? Steele performed well until the last month. The alternatives were probably worse. Other foreign contractors were no more reliable and would have been more expensive.
A leading member of Aristide’s own Steele detail also makes a plausible defence of his team’s performance, and insists that they played an important role in preserving the elected government against its enemies:
Long before February 2004, it was obvious that the President’s Haitian security forces were not reliable. There were perhaps 7 members of his 20-25 man USP security detail that I genuinely trusted ― I’d have been happy to work with those guys anywhere in the world. I wasn’t sure about the others though, and some of them were definitely ready to turn against him, or had already turned against him. Reports of complicity with the rebels were probably accurate. We were always worried about treachery inside the USGPN, and frankly we were expecting some sort of incident well before February 2004. I know that our presence helped to deter this, or to delay it; in fact I’d say our presence was decisive in avoiding a conventional coup attempt during these years. In many ways we helped Aristide to keep his place for as long as he did. We were solid, we were independent, we were not corruptible. Nobody messed with us. Nobody tried to buy us off. Whatever skulduggery might be going on in the National Palace, they still had to reckon with les blans down the corridor, and this made everyone think twice. Aristide was definitely glad to have us around, I know it. We were always reliable and above the fray. Given the way things were and the kinds of pressure the government was under, I don’t think that any Haitian security team could have retained the same sort of independence.
After the December 2001 attack, the number of Steele guards was increased, to a total of around 20 to 25 agents. In late 2003, however, the US government had begun to exert behind-the-scenes influence on the Steele Foundation. Some American members of the Steele team complained of pressure from the embassy, and four or five of them apparently decided to call it quits in early 2004. By the end of the month there were only 15 Steele guards left on duty. At that point, when it was obvious that the government lacked adequate security forces to quell Philippe’s insurgency, Aristide’s government asked Steele for reinforcements. Aristide says that when he spoke with his Steele commanders on the night of 28 February, ‘they told me (a) U. S. officials had ordered them to leave and to leave immediately, and (b) the 25 American agents that they were supposed to welcome the day after, February 29, to reinforce their team, couldn't leave the US to join them in Haiti.’ The first point is plausible but difficult to prove, as anyone who has tried to coax information out of Steele’s Kenneth Kurtz or David Johnson will appreciate. The second point has been amply confirmed by Aristide’s lawyer Ira Kurzban, the Miami Herald’s investigative reporter Juan Tamayo and well-connected analysts like Robert Fatton. According to Fatton, ‘Steele reinforcements were already on their way’, before their arrival was blocked by officials in the State department. A senior member of Aristide’s Steele team confirms this. ‘In response to a request from the Haitian government Steele had recruited some extra security guards, in Miami, and in late February I know they were ready to fly out to join us. But it didn’t happen, I don’t know why.’ Once aboard the plane to Bangui, Steele’s commanding officer David Johnson told Frantz Gabriel that the reinforcements were intercepted by ‘the personal order of Colin Powell himself.’
Although Steele CEO Kenneth Kurtz has always insisted ‘unequivocally that Aristide was not kidnapped’, when directly asked whether any Steele personnel might have been ‘delayed in coming down and adding to the contingent around the president’, Kurtz could only refuse to comment. Kurtz still insists that Steele did nothing to pressure Aristide to leave. Aristide’s prime minister Yvon Neptune, however, later told reporters that ‘he had been “informed by people in a position to know” that the palace security team was told by American officials that “if the agents got into difficulty, they couldn't count on U.S. soldiers to help them out.”’ Ira Kurzban also maintains that ‘Ken Kurtz is not being truthful. We made arrangements to bring in more people from outside the US to defend the President and the capital. The US Embassy blocked efforts to do so by threatening the Steele Foundation. I assume the threat was related to their not getting business in Afghanistan or Iraq. They were told they could only maintain a “defensive” posture to help the President, but they could not bring in more people to stop the rebels. In the end I even began to make plans to find alternative companies.’
What now about Aristide’s less formal line of defence, his so-called ‘militia’, the people that his enemies derided as ‘chimères’? All through the years 2000-2004 the mainstream press, both in Haiti and abroad, did its very best to present these people as Aristide’s version of Duvalier’s tontons macoutes. Nothing was more common in international reporting on Haiti in 2003-2004 than the claim that Aristide was only able to ‘cling to power’ by relying on ‘the “chimères”, armed gangs that have emerged as the replacement of Duvalier’s “tontons macoutes.”’ Just how newspapers like Le Monde, Libération, or the New York Times felt entitled to make such an extravagant claim is something that I still find difficult to understand. According to the best available estimates, Duvalier’s macoutes probably killed some 50,000 people, whereas around twenty or so ‘political’ killings (and perhaps no deliberately planned assassinations) can be attributed to various pro-Lavalas groups, in highly charged circumstances in which the latter suffered rather more violence than they inflicted. All through the tense weeks of deeply provocative anti-government protests that began in Port-au-Prince in November 2003, I believe that just two anti-government protestors (along with several pro-government activists) died in clashes with people that the opposition called ‘chimères’.
All the same, did the Aristide government deliberately arm and fund these ‘chimères’ as a paramilitary force to intimidate a defenceless democratic opposition? Far from it. It appears that a couple of prominent people in the security forces, including departmental police commander Hermione Léonard, enlisted the support of a few gang members in Cité Soleil so as to advance their own interests, including drug smuggling and other forms of contraband. A few members of the government were certainly in contact with Cité Soleil group leaders, mainly in order to try to keep the peace between rival gangs in the capital’s poorest neighbourhood. On a couple of occasions during the government’s last three months in power interior minister Jocelerme Privert contacted some Cité Soleil group leaders in order to inform them of anti-government demonstrations. But there is no credible evidence that the government ever sought to arm large numbers of its supporters in order to intimidate its opponents or to defend itself against organised assault. Veteran reporter Guy Delva is one of the most neutral and balanced observers of the period, and in 2001-2002 he drew strong criticism from Lavalas activists irritated by his association with anti-government NGOs like Reporters Without Borders. Delva knows of no deliberate campaign of violence and of no coordinated effort to arm the ‘chimères’. ‘There’s no evidence of it. Of course it’s possible that in 2004 some weapons were handed out to gangs loyal to the regime: there was an armed insurgency going on, after all, and it’s possible that the government wanted to strengthen itself against the rebels. But the government had very few weapons, in fact, and the supply of police munitions was very low.’
The most that can plausibly be said, according to Robert Fatton (on the basis of what he admits are only rumours and speculation), is that in its last months, as the full extent of police unreliability became clear, some members of Aristide’s security team may have handed out a total of perhaps 100 battered handguns to sympathetic gang-members in Port-au-Prince. Sources close to journalist Kim Ives have told him that ‘some government security officials ― possibly acting on their own initiative ― did send a few, very few, arms to popular organizations in parts of Haiti in the lead-up to the coup’, as part of a belated, ‘half-hearted and anarchic attempt to create a civil defence force.’ But Lavalas partisans like Belizaire Printemps or Elias Clovis (members of the Port-au-Prince organisation populaire Konbit Rezistans Mas Yo) insist that there was no effort to arm government supporters or to mount a campaign of political intimidation. ‘Never in my life did I witness Aristide call people from the slums to violence, never.’ Aristide’s pilot and confidant Frantz Gabriel is adamant: ‘there weren’t enough guns to arm the USGPN, let alone members of pro-FL popular organisations.’
Aid worker Eléonore Senlis ran the largest international NGO outpost in Cité Soleil from June 2003 till July 2004. She befriended leaders of the Cité’s armed groups and was as well-placed as any outsider to assess claims that the government set out to arm groups of its poorest supporters in order to intimidate its (generally less poor) opponents. She knows of only one verifiable case, in an emergency triggered by a combination of open paramilitary assault and police weakness:
After the trouble started in early February 2004, some of the group leaders in Cité Soleil, along with some of their men, were sent up to Gonaïves, and there they were given weapons by the government, to confront the insurgents. The rest of the time it wasn’t at all clear that the government was deliberately trying to arm groups from Cité Soleil. Members of these groups generally seemed to steal their guns from the police or security guards or from other residents of the Cité. The bigger guns were always bought, often from the DR, with money stolen from shops or occasionally donated by various interested parties as ‘contributions to the security of Cité Soleil’. But as far as I know there was never any large-scale distribution of weapons from the government to their supporters.
As for the actual number of guns, at least until mid 2004 there weren’t very many of them to go round. As of February 2004, there were three well-armed groups, led by Dred, Labanye, and Amaral. Each of these three leaders had several automatic weapons at his disposal, maybe half a dozen high calibre pistols and several dozen .38 revolvers, most of which were loaned out to their followers. I think I saw most of them, and I’d guess that there was a grand total of around 250 guns in the hands of groups from Cité Soleil during the turmoil of February 2004, and considerably less before then.
In the context of a country blessed with an estimated 210,000 firearms (of which at least 170,000 remain securely in the hands of its ruling families and businesses), it’s possible that this little ‘chimère’ arsenal of 250 handguns never posed a very worrying threat.
The obvious fact is that Aristide, rightly or wrongly, never so much as tried to train a more reliable, more politically committed security force. Rightly or wrongly, Aristide never sought to organise any sort of armed wing of the Lavalas movement. Rightly or wrongly, Aristide always accepted that ‘institutionalised violence is stronger than any we could unleash. We are not armed. And I do not believe that we will ever have the means to compete with the enemy on that key terrain.’ As an increasingly exasperated Patrick Elie pointed out a few months after the coup in 2004, ‘had President Aristide created an armed militia the ex-military and the death squads would not have stood a chance. All we’re seeing [now] is the violence being visited upon the partisans of President Aristide and it is obvious that this “army” of “chimères” that they were talking about doesn’t exist and is being proven a total, total lie. Every day you read in the newspapers about the Aristide militia, the bandits armed by Aristide, the chimères: that is a total urban legend.’
From the government’s perspective, then, the security situation in February 2004 was indeed desperate. Guy Phillipe is probably close to the truth when he says that as far as the president’s immediate political and police entourage was concerned, in late February 2004 ‘Aristide was totally isolated, betrayed by his security guards and his friends [...]. I had men everywhere, including people within the ministerial cabinet.’ Leading members of the USGPN were in the pay of Aristide’s domestic enemies, Steele was at least partly in league with his international enemies, and even ‘the USP was not all that reliable’, remembers Patrick Elie. ‘This is one of the reasons why Aristide had this crazy quadruple security system. He didn’t trust Steele, he didn’t trust the USP, he didn’t trust the USGPN, and he couldn’t afford to rely only on the street. But he felt that by combining all four he could just about manage. I always thought this was a chancy way to arrange your security.’ Aristide himself was vividly aware of the problem:
It wasn’t hard for the Americans or their proxies to infiltrate the government, to infiltrate the police. We weren’t even able to provide the police with the equipment they needed, we could hardly pay them an adequate salary. It was easy for our opponents to stir up trouble, to co-opt some policemen, to infiltrate our organisation. This was incredibly difficult to control. We were truly surrounded. I was surrounded by people who one way or another were in the pay of foreign powers, who were working actively to overthrow the government. A friend of mine said at the time, looking at the situation, ‘I now understand why you believe in God, as otherwise I can’t understand how you can still be alive, in the midst of all this.’
If anything, by February 2004 the presidential security forces had become the most likely source of an immediate threat to Aristide’s security, rather than the reverse.
Perhaps this helps to explain several of Aristide’s decisions on 28 February. ‘The piecing together of what happened on 28/29 February is rather difficult’, notes Kim Ives, ‘because some of Aristide's moves in those final days and hours are hard to understand. He was miscalculating his manoeuvring room and the nature of the beast he was dealing with.’ A senior member of Aristide’s Steele detail agrees. ‘I don’t know what sort of advice the President was given, or why he decided to go out to Tabarre that day. But in strategic terms, we knew that it was a bad decision to leave the Palace for Tabarre on the 28th. The Palace was an easier place to defend than Tabarre, and many people would have been killed before they could have succeeded in dislodging us. It would have been a slaughter. Still, we might have been overrun eventually, especially if some Haitian departments that were co-located within the Palace grounds had turned against us.’ The USGPN is based at the National Palace, billeted in the old Dessalines Barracks; the headquarters of the notorious PNH anti-gang unit is also close by. ‘I believe the President probably felt safer at his home in a supportive neighbourhood’, says Ira Kurzban, ‘than he would with the USP and the USGPN at the Palace.’ Aristide’s press secretary Michelle Karshan remembers that some of his USP security guards were angry with him that night because he chose to spend it at his house in Tabarre rather than the Palace, and even more angry that he (or their commander Barthélémy) at some point ‘sent them away’. Richard Morse, owner of the Oloffson hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince (and a sharp critic of Aristide), confirms that some of his USP security guards ‘came by the Oloffson late that night. He sent them off on an errand, he told them “go do something”, I don’t know what exactly. There were two large 4x4s full of guys, maybe 8 to 12 people. They all came by, though only one of them spent the night at the hotel.’ On the night of 28 February, it may be that Aristide felt safer on his own. By the time Frantz Gabriel arrived at Tabarre, around 2am or 3am, there were no USGPN guards in sight. According to my Steele source, Aristide’s ‘Haitian security guards [USP] started to drift away from around 3am or so. They were getting uneasy and didn’t seem to know what was going on. By then I wasn’t sure if the perimeter guards were still there or not. I had checked on them earlier in the evening but when things started to go sideways I kept our guys in close to the house.’ Only two USP guards (Barthélémy and Claudy) remained with Aristide when he was flown out of the country, along with his wife Mildred, Frantz Gabriel and all 15 or so remaining members of the Steele security detail.
3. We’ve now anticipated the third point: although by every reliable measure Aristide still seems to have enjoyed the support of a majority of Haiti’s people, in February 2004 his government was poorly equipped to cope with even a small military challenge. By the middle of the month, Philippe’s rebels already controlled a number of provincial towns. Writing in CounterPunch on 14 February from a perspective close to that of Ben Dupuy and militants of Haiti’s PPN, Stan Goff understood that if Aristide was to defeat his enemies
he needs to wage a ruthless fight to retake each of those towns in turn, to acknowledge that the macouto-bourgeoisie is waging a civil war, and to state that this is war, openly, in order to do what is necessary. If not, then the right-wing paramilitaries will maintain the initiative, they will operate within the logic of war, and they will topple Aristide’s government and clamp down yet again on popular sovereignty, with assistance from the hegemon to the north [...]. The question has been called in Haiti. Sovereignty or subjugation. This is the stark choice, and the time for conciliation is past. Now it is time for Dessalines.
On 26 February an old ally of Aristide’s gave him similar advice, in person. ‘I told him that you should close the ANMH radio stations, arrest the opposition leaders and rally your supporters to defeat the insurgency; then after winning that fight, you can enter into negotiations for a peaceful settlement. The opposition leaders were openly seditious, they were in full insurrection mode, yet they were free to move around, to spread all kinds of rumours on the radio, etc. Some of the radio stations were even describing, in detail, the movements of the CIMO and the police force, as they travelled to confront rebel groups in the Central Plateau ― this was completely crazy, even in the most lenient of democracies. They were acting as public intelligence agents for Guy Philippe! Aristide had to close them down.’
But as Aristide is himself the first to admit, he was never prepared to follow Dessalines’ example. Aristide was no warrior, and nor did he surround himself with warriors. There is no denying that by the end of February 2004, Aristide’s own inner circle was not up to the military challenge that faced the country. For whatever reason, when the storm broke Aristide lacked a committed team of militant advisors. His chief security consultant, Jean-Claude Jean-Baptiste, left the country on 25 February in mysterious circumstances. In his last meetings with the president that month, Milot mayor Moïse Jean-Charles (who certainly did organise a forceful resistance to Guy Philippe’s troops on 22 February, and who quickly became a leading figure in the underground resistance that followed Aristide’s departure) told him in no uncertain terms that he was surrounded by traitors and opportunists, people like his chief of staff Jean-Claude Desgranges and senator Louis Gérald Gilles. ‘In late February’, asks Elie, ‘who could Aristide trust? Many of the people in his inner circle were either unreliable or inept: it was a serious problem. Take Desgranges, his chief of staff. Desgranges was symptomatic of the kind of inner circle that Aristide eventually developed. The man was never, never a comrade of Aristide! He was never Lavalas! He was with Manigat, previously. To have such a person as your chief of staff was a serious mistake.’
Faced with a genuine state of emergency, rather than confront it head-on, rather than assemble some sort of war cabinet and put the country on a war footing, it seems as if Aristide hoped that a mixture of his charisma and readiness to compromise might magic a way out of the impasse. Confronted with a military opposition, Aristide hoped that he could overpower them by non-military means. ‘I cannot impress upon you enough’, insists Ira Kurzban, ‘that despite the disinformation campaign, President Aristide always believed that non-violence was the way to solve Haiti's problems ― not more violence. Perhaps he thought that he could to the very end find a peaceful way to avoid the situation, and when that didn't happen it may have already been too late.’ Patrick Elie again puts his finger on the central issue:
By 28 February Aristide was still in a strong position as regards his popularity and the determination of the people in Port-au-Prince, but he wasn’t in a strong position in terms of the loyalty of his inner circle, especially regarding security, and he had failed to prepare for a situation like this, despite the fact that the writing was on the wall. Even if in the end he had decided to fight, he would have had to fight in the worst possible position, without effective planning. This just isn’t something you can improvise. With 500 trained and motivated people we could have made mincemeat of Guy Philippe, and dealt with the state of emergency in an orderly and organised way. But when you look around you and all you see are these very wishy-washy and untrustworthy people, what kind of fight can you really wage? These are things that must be prepared and considered in advance.
In my opinion, rather than devise a viable plan Aristide just tried to stare down the whole operation against him. That’s why I have a slight sense of déjà vu. In 1991 there was a coup in the making, and what he does is throw his popularity at the coup ― he turns out thousands of people when he gets back to the airport, in Cité Soleil and other parts of lower Port-au-Prince, and then whips them up with a speech at the Palace. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it obviously didn’t go far enough. And this time, in 2004, there was that huge demonstration, 7 February, where the crowd stretched from Cité Soleil up to Pétionville and all the way back down to the Palace, it was truly enormous; I’d guess it could have been half a million people. But again it wasn’t enough. When you’re not prepared, you fall back on your old reflexes. The enemy has seen this before, however, and they’re ready for it. By February 28th, he’d already played the one card he had. Even if he was trying to chart a cautious and non-violent course, still, given what he was up against, Aristide needed to have effective contingency plans for a violent confrontation.
In any case I don’t think it ever would have been an all-out confrontation: if we had been properly prepared, we could have dealt with these ‘rebels’ easily enough, and contained them in Gonaïves, there and then. Given Aristide’s popularity, the government should have been in a very strong position. That’s the irony of it: precisely because Aristide was so concerned with democratic legitimacy, he hesitated to do the things that needed to be done. It was a state of emergency, and he needed to treat it like one. Had he done that, it would have been the end of Guy Philippe.
In the long term, Aristide’s unwavering insistence on non-violence may turn out to have been the right strategic decision. This certainly remains his own conviction, to this day. In the short term, however, the immediate tactical price to pay for this strategy was a fateful dependence on the goodwill of the ‘friends of Haiti’, and in particular on the goodwill of US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Elie met with Aristide on Thursday 26 February, and remembers that despite the fact that on the previous day Powell had more or less openly joined French calls for Aristide to resign, Aristide was ‘still hoping, right to the end, that the US would stick with him and push through the compromise deal with the opposition that he had already signed with CARICOM. Don’t forget that right up until the ultimate minute, Colin Powell was saying that Aristide should finish his mandate. Again it reminded me of the first coup: we could see it coming, but I think Aristide trusted Cédras till the end. Again in 2004, I think he trusted the US, right to the end.’
In a way, Aristide’s hesitation was understandable. He was dealing with Colin Powell, after all. As other people who have had to deal with Powell have also learned, it isn’t always easy to tell ‘whether Powell is just a charlatan, or the dumbest man in the world.’ Let’s recall what Powell actually said in February 2004. On 12 February he had re-assured the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ‘the policy of the administration is not regime change.’ The next day, Powell reminded the world that ‘we all have a commitment to the democratic process in Haiti, and we will accept no outcome that is not consistent with the constitution. We will accept no outcome that, in any way, illegally attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti.’ On Thursday 19 February, Powell reminded Aristide’s political opponents that the US would only accept a legal and ‘political solution’, adding that ‘the opposition must recognize that whatever their legitimate complaints, “they will not be dealt with if they fall in league ― or get under the umbrella ― with thugs and murderers.”’ The weekend of 21/22 February, Colin Powell spoke with leading opposition figure André Apaid and ‘urged him to accept the agreement’ already embraced by Aristide and Neptune. On 22 February, ‘a senior Western diplomat in Port-au-Prince’ told reporters that Aristide’s opponents ‘are really risking everything by refusing the helping hand of the international community. If they say no, they will have forfeited the support of the international community. It’s a tremendous risk.’
When on 24 February Apaid and his colleagues publicly rejected Powell’s advice and refused to accept the American plan, therefore, the sense of astonishment was palpable even in the hardened international press corps . ‘Given Aristide’s election by popular vote,’ noted the Washington Post at the time, Powell’s ‘proposal gives the opposition few options but to take its place in a power-sharing government or else lose credibility as a democratic movement.’ It seems as if Aristide wasn’t the only person to be genuinely amazed by Powell’s apparent U-turn. The idea that Powell would simply buckle in the face of people like Andy Apaid and Evans Paul must have seemed almost impossible to swallow.
Was one of the most powerful men in the world really going to allow his authority to be so publicly flouted by Haiti’s little gaggle of political schemers? Yes, he was. But it’s reasonable to assume that it may have taken 48 hours or so before Aristide was prepared to believe it.
Perhaps it was only during the course of 28 February itself that Aristide came to accept the fact that Powell’s government had already thrown him to the wolves. Given the close involvement of Roger Noriega and Stanley Lucas all through the long ‘negotiations with the opposition’, it’s quite possible that Powell himself wasn’t actually in control of US policy at this stage. Patrick Elie again:
I know that when he spoke with Apaid and the G184 people, Colin Powell really did tell them that they should compromise, and I think he genuinely expected them to compromise; it seems they were told that if they refused would have to live with the consequences. I think he really meant it. I think that Powell was fooled by the likes of Noriega and Foley and Lucas, and that he resented it. It’s no coincidence that Noriega and Foley were soon dismissed, just a year later, once it became obvious they couldn’t deliver on the promises that they made about bringing the country back to normal. So if you ask me, in late February the US was still banking on a compromise, and that their final move was very rushed. I think they only took the final decision to push Aristide out very late in the day. At least it looks that way in hindsight. It’s obvious that Foley was fired. He didn’t finish his term, and they didn’t even have someone ready to replace him. They had to fall back on an interim ex-ambassador, Tim Carney.
Yvon Neptune agrees with Elie’s assessment. ‘I don’t think that Powell really knew what has happening in Haiti in late February. I think that some things were being handled by a certain group of people in Washington, and that Powell was not fully aware of what was being planned. Roger Noriega and some of his associates don’t seem to have been entirely open about what they were doing.’
4. This is another important point to remember: although the US was definitely in charge on the night of 28/29 February, their ‘men on the ground’ were far from all-powerful. The events leading up to Aristide’s much-anticipated expulsion hadn’t quite proceeded according to the Franco-US plan. The plan was to stir up overwhelming public resentment against the regime until it fell apart under the pressure of another rousing ‘Orange Revolution’. The ‘popular movement for change’ would lend democratic legitimacy to that ever-elusive ‘moderate’ and ‘broad-based’ government that the well-meaning friends of Haiti had been looking for ever since 1986. The aim was to force the majority of Haitian people to accept, freely and voluntarily, a government whose real purpose was simply to endorse a version of the status quo. The aim, in other words, was finally to realise the ambition that inspired Washington’s machinations back during the first coup period, in 1991-94 ― the Theodore plan, the Malval plan, the Governor’s Island plan, the Paris plan, the Smarck Michel plan, etc., so many variants of a plan in which an electable Haitian leader would eventually ‘agree’ to adopt the sensible neo-liberal policies of the man that the US had so energetically backed during the election campaign of 1990, Aristide’s opponent Marc Bazin (the man who won 14% of the vote, against Aristide’s 67%). In 2000-2001, desperate to win some degree of international acceptance and financial support, Aristide had indeed been obliged to accept many aspects of this plan, including the participation in his government of no less a man than Bazin himself. Nevertheless, full compliance remained some way off. Aristide was never willing to turn himself into the man required by America’s plan.
But although they generated some useful television footage and came complete with a vocal ‘student movement’ and a few helpfully indignant ‘human rights analysts’, the Franco/US-orchestrated street demonstrations of December 2003-January 2004 never came close to forcing Aristide out. By late January 2004 it was clear that they never would. The usual barrage of anonymous experts and diplomats quoted in the papers like the New York Times began to speculate that Aristide would probably survive the crisis more or less unscathed. All by itself, the major pro-government demonstration of 7 February 2004 dwarfed any of the anti-government demonstrations by a factor of at least 10, if not 20.
Given the persistence of popular support for the completion of Aristide’s full term in office, Aristide’s enemies had no option but to commit themselves to the military alternative that they launched on 5 February 2004, as a way of avoiding CARICOM’s uncomfortably feasible political solution. The government’s security forces had been sufficiently infiltrated and undermined to allow this new tactic to be quite successful in the short term, in attacks against Haiti’s undefended provincial towns and villages. Back in Port-au-Prince the familiar ‘laboratory’, meanwhile, spread all sorts of rumours to create a sense of inevitable catastrophe. The problem with this strategy was that by the end of February it had brought Port-au-Prince, once again, to the brink of open revolution. An open military conflict between Philippe’s group and pro-Aristide militants in Port-au-Prince could have led to utter chaos, and utter chaos isn’t something that Haiti’s tiny ruling class has any reason to relish. On 27 February the US embassy accused Aristide of unleashing his ‘chimère’ fanatics and of inciting the population to riot, but in fact it was the US and its allies that were on the verge of losing control. As Neptune explains, after forcing things to such a point, after ‘they had deliberately made the situation so critical, Noriega and his cronies suddenly realised the whole thing might explode. And faced with this prospect they then hurried to do something, they had to find a way out. They encouraged the situation to deteriorate, but I think they didn’t expect the people to mobilise so strongly in defence of Lavalas and the government, on the streets. They didn’t expect that. So suddenly they were confronted with the real possibility of upheaval. And I think this forced them to do something very hasty. That’s my analysis of the situation.’
5. Aristide’s own penultimate decision was equally stark. He knew that he couldn’t rely on the domestic police, on foreign troops, or on an armed wing of the Lavalas movement: that left only the prospect of a popular call to arms. If Aristide had issued such a call, there’s little doubt that Port-au-Prince would have erupted overnight. Among many others, Neptune and Elie confirm that ‘the streets were definitely controlled by the popular groups’. ‘I can verify this’, says Elie, ‘because I drove through the city that night, and there were barricades everywhere; they had succeeded in stopping any vehicles in circulation, except for those sympathetic to the government.’ If Aristide had declared his determination to engage the enemy in an all-out war, there’s little doubt that many thousands of (mainly unarmed) people would have rallied enthusiastically to his cause. But since ‘we weren’t well prepared for this possibility’, continues Elie, ‘it would have been messy. When you have no plan, and when you rely on sheer numbers ― which we would have had, definitely ― it’s difficult to control the situation. You don’t lead 100,000 enthusiastic young people the same way you do a small guerrilla force, or a well-trained military unit.’
Some of Aristide’s left-leaning critics still blame him for refusing to mobilise the people of Cité Soleil and the other pro-Lavalas slums in an quasi-military defence of the government in late February. Since it was these same people who would soon be doomed to bear the immediate human cost of Aristide’s expulsion, the accusation deserves to be taken seriously. It’s possible that in the last week of February Aristide considered this option, before quickly (if not instinctively) deciding against it. The defections among the security forces were too discouraging, the embargo on police and military supplies was too damaging, the international community was too hostile, and the immediate balance of forces too uncertain. The carnage might easily have spiralled out of control, with disastrous consequences. Even if Lavalas managed to win the immediate battle against Philippe, the prospects for winning a longer war with the ruthless people behind Philippe were far from encouraging. More importantly, Lavalas’ longstanding and fundamental commitment to non-violence would have been compromised. In 2004 as in 1990 or 1991-94 Aristide made it crystal clear that he wanted nothing to do with a militarised Lavalas.
So in 2004 as in 1991 Aristide opted against armed struggle. He knew from the experience of the previous coup that even a very large crowd of mostly unarmed people isn’t enough to defend a house against sufficiently ruthless military attack. It seems he or someone close to him decided at some point on the night of 28/29 February that it would be better to send his most militant supporters back to Cité Soleil, back to the neighbourhoods where they might be able to defend themselves more effectively. According to Eléonore Senlis, who was well-placed to know, the militants who in February regularly manned barricades to protect Aristide’s house at Tabarre were instructed, sometime around 11pm, to return home. When Moreno later drove to and from Tabarre he doesn’t seem to have encountered any significant opposition, and according to a well-connected French journalist based in Port-au-Prince, international journalists (AP, CNN, CBC) who went to and from the airport at 11:30 and 3am ‘didn't see anybody at abandoned barricades going to the airport through the Tabarre road.’ It seems that this detail in Foley’s version of events, at least, checks out.
IV A forced abduction
Here now is the gist of what actually happened on 28-29 February, as far as I’ve been able to reconstruct it.
The previous evening, Friday 27 February, as furious and frightened groups of his supporters swarmed the streets of Port-au-Prince, Aristide had insisted once again, in what turned out to be his last televised address, that his resignation was ‘out of the question’. (This final appeal for calm also succeeded in bringing a brief bout of looting in the city to an immediate stop). ‘The National TV couldn’t get a crew to the Palace’, remembers Elie, ‘nor could they bring him to the studio, so they broadcast his words via a telephone line, together with a still picture of him, as he answered the anchorman. And in that speech he did clearly say that he would make a stand. He asked people to take down the barricades during the day, to allow the city to function, but to put them back up at night. We all took it for granted that he was going to tough it out.’
On the morning of Saturday 28 February, the US responded with a White House press briefing in which Bush’s spokesman declared that ‘the long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide's doing. His own actions have called into question his fitness to remain in office.’ US defence officials simultaneously announced that that ‘they were considering sending three ships carrying marines to help deal with the crisis.’ Then during the course of the afternoon, rumours that probably originated in the US and French embassies started to circulate that Aristide would shortly leave or be forced out. Ex-general and soon-to-be Interior Minister Hérard Abraham went on radio to speculate about Aristide’s imminent departure, and the tape was taken up by many of the ‘independent’ (i.e. anti-government and US-funded) stations. Members of the press corps based at the Montana and Villa Creole hotels also began to pick up signals that some sort of operation was under way, though they were unable to confirm any details.
Late that Saturday afternoon ambassador Foley paid Neptune a visit at the prime minister’s office. Neptune remembers that ‘Foley didn’t tell me what he was up to. I just said to him, “whatever you’re doing, if it involves removing the President, this is going to take our democracy and the democratic process back 10 to 25 years.” In reply he only said something rather strange, and very cynical. He said “it’s going to be a mess”. That was all he said.’
An hour or two later that evening, at Aristide’s request, Yvon Neptune and the Secretary of State for Security Jean Gérard Dubreuil ‘drove around the city, to give the people a sense that the government was still in place, and that the police and their commanders were still in charge.’ Meanwhile the phone was constantly ringing in Tabarre, and the pressure was mounting on Aristide. Foley and Powell shared their concerns about the ‘bloodbath’ that might ensue unless Haiti had a new president when the sun came up. Around 11:30pm, Aristide’s close associate FL senator Myrlande Libérus rang prime minister Neptune, and asked him to meet with her and the finance minister, Gustave Faubert, at the house of a police administrator who lives near Aristide’s own residence in Tabarre. Libérus rang Aristide again around 1am, and he told them to keep waiting. ‘I am trying to undo something in the making’, Aristide told Neptune, without further explanation.
At this point, having decided against popular insurrection and faced by foreign powers that were prepared to force him out by any means necessary, Aristide had only one choice left to make. He had to decide between three options.
The first option was simply to escape. This would have been very easy. He was protected by an extremely competent group of international security guards. ‘We definitely could have got the president out of the country on our own,’ says a senior member of Aristide’s Steele team. ‘Of course we could. One of the first things you do when you arrive in theatre is to map out and make sure of your escape routes. We could have got him out by road or boat, if not by air, no problem.’
Second option: he could stay in Tabarre and face the imminent prospect of assassination and instant political conflagration. In my opinion, after speaking to several well-placed people who claim to have reliable information about the covert machinations of late February, it’s quite likely that if Aristide had decided to remain in Haiti that night then he’d have been dead within a couple of days, if not hours. Aristide had repeatedly said that (like his prime minister Neptune) he was prepared to risk his life in order to complete his term in office. This wasn’t quite the first time that Aristide had been obliged to confront the prospect of assassination, and people who say that he decided to leave simply out of fear for his safety know little or nothing about either his personality or his political career. But he also had to consider the longer term consequences of what might happen. Suppose he was assassinated, and thus martyred. What then? What would have happened to the long-term prospects of a non-violent movement for social change? This was the issue that Aristide had to wrestle with that night, and he opted to wrestle with it more or less on his own. The last time he spoke with his prime minister, around 3:30 or 4:00am, Aristide again gave little away. He said only, ‘I am like a prisoner. If you want to leave, leave, or if you want to stay, stay.’ Nothing more. As Neptune recalls,
the President did not explain, he didn’t go into any detail about what he was facing, neither in the days before 28 February, nor during the night he has forced out. He didn’t describe to me the pressure that he was under, nor did he ask me about what I was planning to do ― he already knew my position, and he knew that I would not leave Haiti under any circumstances. It’s clear that at the last minute, he didn’t tell me everything about what he was up against. But this isn’t a reproach. It was obvious that the governments of the US and France were closing in, and that by the afternoon of 28 February there was something in the making. But I also accepted that Aristide was the president. He is a political leader, and I accept that in certain circumstances a political leader is entitled to decide that there is some information that he should keep to himself, for whatever reason. A president has the right to withhold some information if he feels it might alter or confuse certain things. Aristide was a very popular leader, he had a lot of responsibility, and he had on his shoulders the weight of what was happening to the country. He was responsible for what was happening, and might happen, to the vast majority of his supporters. Leaders in his sort of position sometimes have to make decisions on their own, at very fragile and difficult times.
I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography recently, and I remember that when he was to meet with de Klerk he didn’t inform his collaborators; Mandela had to decide it on his own. That’s something that caught my attention. Aristide knew that I had already made my decision, and I think that maybe he didn’t want to burden me with information that I didn’t need to know.
Aristide’s third and final option involved a painful short-term compromise, made in the interests of a longer-term victory. Some time between 2am and 5am, and perhaps only once he found himself in the midst of elite US troops, it seems as if Aristide finally bowed to US pressure, and ‘agreed’ to leave office. It seems he agreed to go to the US embassy for a press conference, and that the probable purpose of this conference was to announce and explain his reluctant decision to leave office. It’s possible, though less certain, that around this same time he also agreed to be taken out of the country on a US plane.
Now the ideal scenario, from the US perspective, would surely have been to bully their nemesis into an open and public resignation, and then bully him some more into leaving the country on his own steam. We know that Aristide’s Steele guards could have escorted him to safety without US help; once he’d been discredited as a coward and a traitor his ex-supporters could then have been hustled briskly on into that bright new democratic dawn long planned for them by their northern friends. It’s reasonable to assume that Foley said and did everything he could to persuade Aristide to abandon ship that night, and it’s clear that he and Powell had put significant pressure on the Steele team as well. Powell more or less admitted as much (to the intense irritation of Steele’s CEO Kenneth Kurtz) when he let slip a day or two later that it was Aristide’s ‘bodyguards who told him it was time to leave.’
But first the US needed an official letter of resignation from Aristide. Only with such a letter in their possession could they pretend to claim legal cover for whatever action they might then find themselves ‘obliged’ to take, in keeping with a super-power’s occasional ‘responsibility to protect’ the leaders and populations of its less powerful neighbours. Without such a letter, they stood little chance of gaining rapid i.e. automatic UN approval for further imperial intervention. But in spite of all this pressure, Aristide refused to resign in the way that Foley wanted him to.
Sometime in the early hours of 29 February, Aristide did eventually put his name to a resignation letter of sorts. It was typed on a piece of card, and then signed; Neptune is familiar with Aristide’s distinctive signature, and when he received the letter from Foley around 6:30am he accepted it as genuine. There was some controversy, however, over its exact meaning, and still more controversy over its (highly dubious) legal status. Kim Ives spoke with Aristide in Bangui in early March, and was told that staff from the US and French embassies ‘in fact drafted a resignation for him, which he refused to sign, and that was [the source for] a lot of the struggle during the night. In the end, he drafted his own letter, which had a conditional clause’ and which remained deliberately ambiguous. After trying to translate the key passage of the letter as ‘tonight I am resigning in order to avoid a bloodbath’, the State Department was obliged to hire Kreyol expert professor Bryant Freeman to provide a more accurate translation. Freeman pointed out that Aristide's letter never said, ‘I am resigning’, and that its actual meaning was more evasive: ‘Thus, if this evening it is my resignation which can prevent a bloodbath, I agree to leave ...’ No doubt polite discussions over the wording of this letter consumed some of the hour or so that Moreno apparently spent with Aristide at Tabarre, from around 4am to 5am Sunday morning.
The more significant point is that Aristide refused to sign any such letter without getting at least something in return. At the very least, he was promised that he would have a last chance to address the Haitian people, at a press conference at the US embassy, followed up by broadcasts at the National Palace. More importantly, what Aristide got in return for his ‘agreement to leave’ office was overt US participation in an operation that served at least to reveal the actual balance of forces in the country. Aristide forced the Americans to come to his house with their own troops, to escort him to the airport in their own vehicle and then to fly him out into quasi-captivity on their own plane, to a destination that could only be of their own choosing. In doing so, he left all but his most blinkered countrymen in no doubt as to who was really behind this most violent phase in Haiti’s ongoing ‘transition to democracy’.
Once it had become clear by around 3 or 4am that the only available options were bloodbath or departure, Aristide did indeed choose departure ― but he chose it such a way as to expose the real actors in command of this choice. He chose a scenario that forced the Americans to play their hand out in the open. This way he would at least be able to clarify the situation for the resistance that was sure to follow the abduction. In other words, rather than simply allow himself to be taken prisoner by the Americans, or to be lured out of his house by false promises of an escort to the National Palace, Aristide effectively manoeuvred Foley into taking him out, on the assumption that though the short-term battle was indeed already lost Lavalas would later be able to regroup and prevail in the longer-term struggle. The Haitian people would soon learn the real reasons for the government’s demise, Lavalas could retain its commitment to non-violence, and eventually Aristide himself would be free to return to fight another day.
No doubt Foley himself was well aware of the danger. ‘When we came through with the offer of safe exit in an airplane, we gave him an alibi for the scenario he's been using ever since,’ he admitted after the fact. ‘We clearly walked into a trap. But I think we did the right thing…. Had we not intervened, there would have been a meltdown and a bloodbath.’ It would have been so much simpler if Steele had been willing to escort Aristide to safety on their own! But by midnight on 28/29 February Foley too had run out of options, and after hours of threatening phonecalls, it seems that Aristide still wouldn’t budge. Port-au-Prince was once again on the brink of revolution, and time was now desperately short. A planeload of police munitions was due to arrive from South Africa within hours, and Haiti’s allies in CARICOM were growing more restive by the day; it’s possible that Venezuela too was getting ready to send additional help. Guy Philippe’s little troop wasn’t actually ready to launch any sort of assault for at least three or four days, and in any case the prospect of a quick and easy and thus media-friendly victory for Philippe was far from guaranteed. It was growing more difficult to conceal the obvious links between the political and the military wings of the US-backed opposition ― links that endured in open defiance of Powell’s stern and very public strictures. The night of 28 February the world’s press corps had its cameras firmly trained on Haiti, and the more time went on the more curious some journalists might become about the actual political basis for the crisis. It’s possible that the French in particular were starting to panic, and were now determined to force the issue at all costs.
So in a sense Foley too had little choice. At some point that night he had to settle for plan B: direct abduction. Although most of the pieces required for this contingency were already in place and had probably been arranged at least a week in advance (when around fifty new US troops arrived to take control of the airport), nevertheless it seems that some aspects of the operation had to be improvised at the last minute.
As far as ambassadors Foley and Burkard were concerned, the main virtue of direct abduction was that it would allow them immediately to silence Aristide and shut him up in a plane for around 24 crucial hours while they helped his enemies to conquer Port-au-Prince. With Aristide already out of the picture, the prospect of open-ended conflict with his supporters would rapidly recede, and in the short-term the story that a terrified president came begging for US protection would help (and still helps) to generate some demoralising confusion within Lavalas.
The downside of this plan, from the US perspective, was that it might soon become impossible to disguise the fact that it was indeed based on an abduction pure and simple. Foley had to bank on the fact that no-one would bother to look too closely at what had happened. He had to bank on the fact that as long as the US and France could veto any serious investigation in the UN or OAS, so then predictable objections from CARICOM, the African Union and a handful of indignant members of the US Congress could be safely ignored. Since the Franco-US press had been so extraordinarily compliant with their governments’ effort to demonise and discredit the Aristide régime over the previous couple of years, perhaps Foley was entitled to assume there would be little risk of any serious mainstream media investigation after the fact ― and in this respect at least, he’s been proved mainly right. Perhaps Foley even thought that the ‘democratic opposition’ to Aristide that his government had so enthusiastically sponsored might manage to restore ‘stability and security’ to the country, once sufficient numbers of ex-military and ex-death-squad members had been incorporated into a re-educated Haitian National Police. (This was a process that Foley already knew something about, thanks to some educational time spent with the KLA in Kosovo). ‘It seems the US really believed in that stupid opposition of theirs’, observes Elie. ‘They really believed in their capacity to control the country and eventually to rally the majority, even though they clearly never had a chance in hell of ever doing that. After all the US created this opposition themselves: maybe they fell for their own propaganda.’ Shortly after this forlorn hope had been proved irrefutably wrong, by the summer of 2005, both Foley and Noriega would be relieved of their jobs.
What about that promise of an early morning press conference? In his first public appearance in Bangui, on 8 March 2004, ‘Aristide said he had been told by the US ambassador to Haiti that he would be taken to a press conference in Port-au-Prince on February 29, but was instead driven to the airport. “They put me in a car and I found myself at the airport. The airport was under the control of the Americans,” he said.’ All the first-hand accounts of Aristide’s last hours in Haiti are consistent on this point. Jeffrey Kofman, a reporter from ABC News who spent the month of February 2004 in Haiti, says that his network had arranged a television interview with Aristide for around 6am on Sunday 29 February. He was in and out of touch with a senior member of Aristide’s staff the previous night, and finally managed to get through to his cell phone for the last time shortly before dawn. ‘The person I spoke with Saturday night was talking to Aristide, or so he said. When I called him Sunday morning and actually got through I recall he told me the interview was still on, but he sounded very strained. I think he said he'd call back. I certainly remember calling his cell repeatedly after that and I never got through again.’ Frantz Gabriel remembers that ‘Moreno told the president that they were going to organize a press conference at the embassy, and told him to be ready to accompany them. The president called Mildred, and we boarded the vehicles to go to the Embassy. As we were heading towards the Embassy, passing the airport, we ended up making a right inside the airport, and that's when I realized that we were not going to the Embassy.’ Asked about the likely purpose of such a press conference, Gabriel guessed that ‘it was probably going to be about his leaving power.’
There is some uncertainty about whether, before Moreno took him to the airport, Aristide had already accepted that he would have to leave Haiti as well. ‘I think he believed he was going to go to the Palace in the early morning of February 29th’, says his lawyer, but that ‘he was instead taken to the airport. Knowing the President perhaps he thought that he could outmaneuver the US once he was at the Palace. I believe that he was effectively under house arrest by sometime in the afternoon or evening of February 28th and that he was taken to the airport rather than the Palace against his will.’ Aristide himself said much the same thing shortly after the event, in conversation with Amy Goodman. Asked whether ‘when you went into the car from your house, did you understand you were going to the airport and being flown out?’, Aristide answered (in his own English): ‘Not at all. Because this is not what they told me [...]. Ambassador Foley said we were going to talk to the media, to the press, and I can talk to the Haitian people calling for peace like I did one night before [...]. This was our best way to avoid bloodshed. We talked with them in a nice, diplomatic way to avoid bloodshed, we played the best we could in a respectful way, in a legal and diplomatic way. [...] But unfortunately, once they put me in their car, from my residence, they put me in their plane full [of their] military, because they already had all control of the Haitian airport in Port-au-Prince.’ Frantz Gabriel backed up this version of events once he arrived with the Aristides in Jamaica in mid-March: ‘I was at the house at 5am when Moreno came in to tell the president they were going to organize a press conference and be ready to accompany them. We boarded to go to the embassy and we ended up at the airport.’ A couple of years later, Gabriel described what happened at greater length:
I got to Aristide’s house at Tabarre around 2am. None of the USGPN guards who usually guard the gate and the perimeter were there; the gate was opened by Steele people, which was very unusual. Aristide spent a long time on the phone, making different calls, going back and forth; I am his pilot and his friend but not his political advisor, so we didn’t have a full conversation about what was going on. Mildred was there too but nobody else, it was just the three of us. At one point I stepped outside to stretch my legs in the compound, I noticed that hidden marksmen were aiming their weapons at me, I could see little red dots on my chest, so I went back inside and waited for the president to explain what was going on. But he didn’t really explain, he mostly kept things to himself. It was tense, and I didn’t press him for more details.
Then while we were waiting and talking Luis Moreno, the political attaché of the US embassy, knocked at the door of the house; I opened the door and saw with him there two special operations guys ― obviously military, but they had beards and were carrying some serious hardware. The President asked ‘What I can do for you?’ Moreno said ‘Don’t you remember me? I’m Luis Moreno, and I’m the man who welcomed you ten years ago at the airport, when you came back from exile. It’s too bad that I have to accompany you tonight when you leave’. Aristide asked, ‘you have to accompany me where?’ Moreno said ‘we’re going to have a news conference at the embassy.’ Then we were led down the steps, and in the compound there were only US troops, and a couple more Delta-type guys. Aristide, Mildred and I were taken manu militari into Moreno’s embassy car. We had no time to pack, and had to leave without bags or passports. We left with nothing.
There were around a dozen US cars lined up across the street from the President’s residence. Our Steele guards were already waiting in some of the cars, and we all set off in a single convoy. We got to the airport at dawn, it was around 5am; I saw that Foley was there too. We were led onto the plane, along with all of our Steele security guards and around twenty US troops, who quickly changed into civilian dress.
Moreno says that Aristide only handed him his ‘resignation letter’ at the airport; Frantz Gabriel says he saw no such exchange, and assumes (more plausibly) that the letter changed hands back at the house. It’s not hard to guess why, as soon as they were sure of their precious letter, the US quickly pulled the plug on the press conference idea. ‘That’s obvious’, says Elie. ‘The US were clearly afraid that if Aristide had had a chance to say more than four words he’d have found a way to throw a monkey wrench in their nice little plans.’ Neptune agrees. ‘There’s no way that they wanted to give him the opportunity to talk. He’d have been in a position to say so many things! He could have clarified what was actually going on. Once you have the power to pull a stunt like this, to abduct a president in this way, why encumber yourself with unnecessary witnesses, or the press? Once you do something not because it’s right but because you can, on the basis of sheer power, you don’t want witnesses around. You just want to get on with it.’
In any case, it’s clear that as soon as the Americans got Aristide onto their plane they treated him like a virtual prisoner. By all accounts he was not initially told where he was being taken, and he was not allowed to open the window shades, to make any phonecalls, or to have any sort of communication with his advisors either in Haiti or abroad.
On the other hand, if Aristide gambled everything on the offer of a final press conference ― if he was banking on something like this, in negotiations with a veteran imperial agent like Luis Moreno, in a house that was already under the control of the US army’s most deadly and most secretive troops ― then he must have known that he was running an altogether reckless risk. The least that can be said is that he did little to even the odds. Perhaps out of fears for their security, he doesn’t seem to have arranged for independent witnesses to come and interfere with Moreno’s final machinations. He doesn’t seem to have summoned any of his political advisors to join him at Tabarre. From midnight or thereabouts his prime minister and finance minister and various others were waiting for instructions just a few hundred yards away, but he didn’t ask them (or Dubreuil, or Desgranges, or anyone else...) to come over to his house. Apart from his wife Mildred and Frantz Gabriel, he chose to remain on his own. Presumably, by the time he got into Moreno’s car he had already ‘agreed’ to do what the Americans demanded. By then he knew he had no longer had any choice. Rather than let himself be tricked into going to an improbable press conference with the wily US ambassador, it seems more likely that as he was driven to the airport he was already planning on a less constrained and more explosive press conference ― in exile.
It’s quite likely though that Moreno only told Aristide that the US had decided to cancel its press conference at the very last second. This interpretation chimes with the testimony of the senior Steele guard who manned the Aristide’s front-door that night. Aristide generally kept his Steele guards fully abreast of his movements, and the final change of plan was announced only minutes before they all left the house. Sometime earlier in the morning of February 29th the entire Steele security detail was told to ‘plan for a road move to the US Embassy where the President would make a TV broadcast; from there a road move would escort the President and First Lady back to the National Palace.’ The speculation among the team was that ‘the President would be making another appeal for calm, the same sort of broadcast that he had regularly made in the previous few days.’ From about 2am or so, remembers a Steele guard who was on duty that night,
we could hear that people were making preparations inside the house, and the noise and urgency from the sounds within the house made us think that something more was going to happen. The speculation was that we would relocate at the Palace and hold out there after the press conference. Moreno arrived around 4am and was inside the house with the president for around an hour. But then just minutes before we actually left, we were told instead that we’d be escorting the President to the international airport, and that we’d be leaving with him by plane. We had no time to prepare. We were not packed at all and most of us had to leave a considerable amount of personal possessions behind. The President and the First Lady also brought very few belongings with them; the president had a briefcase and the First Lady had her overnight bag, nothing else.
As for the Haitian USP guards, ‘they were very nervous and kept asking what was going on. By the time we drove out to the airport all the remaining USP guards who were still at Tabarre knew the President was leaving, though possibly some were still unsure of how he was leaving.’
The argument that by 4am or so on 29 February Aristide already knew he was going to be forced out of the country shortly before dawn is also consistent with the testimony of his prime minister, Yvon Neptune. Neptune’s side of the story hasn’t yet been published in any detail, and since it sheds considerable light on the darkness of that night his testimony is worth quoting at length. Neptune says that after touring the city with Dubreuil earlier that evening he went home and was getting ready to go to bed when his friend FL senator (and head of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy) Myrlande Libérus rang him, sometime around 11:30pm.
She told me I should leave my house as quickly as possible, in less than 15 minutes. She told me to go to a place near the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, in Tabarre. It was between midnight and 1:00am, I believe. So I got to the place, and someone came to pick me up, and took me to the house of a senior member of the police force, which was nearby. The finance minister Gustave Faubert was also there, and his wife, along with senator Myrlande Libérus. I asked her ‘what are you doing here?’, and she said the president had called her and asked them all to be there, and to wait. I said ‘to wait for what?’ And she said ‘I don’t know’. She didn’t explain. So I said ‘I’ll wait, but it’s very strange for me that you’re here and that you don’t know why, and that I’m here and don’t know why, given the situation out there.’ She insisted then that I call the president. At this point I didn’t know where the president was, whether he was in the palace, or in Tabarre. She called him and passed me the phone, and he just told me ‘I’m trying to undo something.’ I know the president, and he knows me, and I knew not to ask him what he meant if he hadn’t chosen to tell me more. That’s usually how I operated with him: if he tells me something but doesn’t volunteer further details then I don’t press him. So I said ok, and he hung up, and that was it.
Sometime later, maybe around an hour later, the senator’s phone rang. It was the president, and he said that if by 3am we don’t hear from him we should try to reach the airport. Nothing more. So we waited for a little longer. The senator's phone rang again sometime later, and again it was the president. He spoke with the senator and with the finance minister, and then me. He said ‘Yvon in the situation I am now I feel like a prisoner. It’s up to you. If you decide to stay you stay, if you decide to go you go.’ I didn’t answer, since I’m quite sure he knew my position, which had been very public. And that’s when I realised that what I’d considered to be rumours were true, that something horrible was taking place, something terrible for the democratic process and for the people of Haiti. I then called Foley and asked him what was going on. He said the president has resigned. I said ‘you know what my position is: there are close associates of the president here with me now, what should they do, what will happen to them?’ Foley asked me to wait. I didn’t know if they were supposed to go to the airport. He called me back, and he said it’s ok, they can go to the airport. As for me, he suggested that I go back to my office and wait.
So I asked the senator and finance minister, do you want to go to the airport? The senator said no, since she was unsure about her security. Then some calls were made to the DR embassy, and some people left. I asked the finance minister whether he wanted to go to the airport, and he too said he wasn’t sure about the security situation, but he decided that yes he wanted to go, with me and my driver, and that we could go with my security guards who were waiting at the Foundation. So we went to the airport. The place was completely dark, and there was not a soul on the streets or at the airport itself. All the doors were locked. I told the finance minister it’s obvious there’s no-one here. It was around 4am. I didn’t hear a plane land, there was nothing. I still didn’t know if the president was at the Palace or at his house. It was spooky. So we left, and I said I’ll take you to the embassy of the Dominican Republic, which is near my office. Then I went to my office [the Primature], and sometime later Alexandre Boniface and Foley arrived. Foley passed me the envelope with the famous letter of resignation, I saw Aristide's signature and assumed that it was genuine. There was no indication of any forgery. I asked Boniface if this was ok with him, and he said no problem, he was prepared to take the oath of office if need be.
Meanwhile the general situation was very confused and unclear. I felt that anything could have happened, and I was put under a great deal of pressure by Foley to make a statement: for some reason the press was already there, mostly foreign press. I refused to make a statement but I agreed to read what was written on the card, and I encouraged everyone to remain calm. And that was it. Many people said that Boniface took the oath of office in my presence, but that’s not true. He was at the Primature, but I was not present when he spoke the oath of office. He did so in the presence of a judge, but I don’t even know who that judge was. I cannot tell you who was there: I was sitting in my office, and I believe he gave the oath in the conference room, in the presence of the US and French ambassadors.
While they were there in my office, the house where I was living at the time, my cousin’s house, was being ransacked. One of the police agents came in to tell me this. I asked Foley, and said ‘what’s going on? if that’s the case I’m going to resign right now.’ And Foley said ‘no no don’t do that, we’ll send our people and see what’s happening’. Sometime later one of Haitian agents told me that they arrived too late. There was never any investigation to try to find out who did it.
After that I stayed in my office, and slept in my office, for about twelve days.
On 2 March, Guy Philippe’s rebels threatened my life again. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but while ambassadors Foley and Burkard were with me that day I got a phonecall, saying that the rebels were on their way to arrest me. But I suppose that plan was called off, for some reason. Around the same time Aristide called me from Africa, and explained the situation, and that’s when I realised how much pressure he’d been under the night he left. And I asked Foley, ‘why did you lie to me? You told me he had resigned, but it appears that what he wrote on that card he wrote under pressure.’ Foley just said ‘he did resign, and there was no pressure.’ And I could see right away that there was no point in pursuing it any further.
Neptune’s decision to remain briefly in his post during Foley’s ‘democratic and constitutional transition’ to a post-Aristide regime was the object of considerable argument in Haiti, and it remains so to this day. Some Aristide loyalists still condemn Neptune for collusion with the enemy, and some journalists later reported that in early March 2004 Neptune was ‘furious’ with Aristide, and that he felt betrayed and abandoned by his leader. As far as I can tell such accusations are neither fair nor accurate. Neptune’s position remained consistent throughout the crisis. He repeatedly declared that he would remain in Haiti, come what may. ‘I had often said how I would not leave Haiti under any circumstances, and Aristide knew that I had said that there was no risk I wouldn’t take, no danger that I wouldn’t face, so that he could finish his mandate. I remember that a member of the opposition had once said that when things got out of hand, we in Fanmi Lavalas would be the first to abandon ship, and that we would leave the population on its own ― and that definitely reinforced my decision about not leaving, no matter what.’ When shortly after 6am Neptune was confronted with apparently plausible proof of Aristide’s resignation and ‘agreement to leave’, he was in no position to block the constitutional charade that Foley and Burkard staged in order to allow Boniface Alexandre to be sworn in as interim president. ‘Neptune was in the worst position of all’, notes Elie:
Aristide kept him thinking to the last minute that he was going to find a way out of the bind they were in. I think that for a moment he truly believed that the president had indeed resigned, yes. He was surprised and disappointed, and I imagine a little panicked ― understandably. He was left there more or less on his own, and he never had the same sort of bond with the people that Aristide had, he was more of an organisational man, a very good administrator, very loyal and very dedicated. It seems that Aristide didn’t fully explain or devise a detailed plan of how they should deal with the fall-out of an abduction or ‘resignation’. For a moment, Neptune probably didn’t know if he should try to continue the resistance, salvage the position of the government, go underground, or else basically go along with the dictates of the US. Aristide himself didn’t send a clear signal. If you throw someone into hot water like that with basically thirty seconds notice, of course it’s going to encourage a certain amount of improvisation. I don’t think Neptune can be faulted at all. A lot of people blame him unfairly, saying that he aided the coup, etc. This is bullshit: I’ve heard this from a fair number of so-called Fanmi Lavalas die-hards, who were conveniently in the DR or in Miami at the time.
It’s clear that on 28 February Neptune wanted to share more closely in Aristide’s deliberations, and that he was scandalised by the US machinations to force Aristide out of the country. But subsequent media attempts to portray Neptune as ‘furious’ with a treacherous Aristide are misleading or incorrect. On 1 March 2004 Neptune gave a filmed interview with reporters from the Haiti Information Project, in which he made his assessment of the situation perfectly clear. ‘Aristide was forced to leave the country. Whatever anyone else says, for whatever reason, it would not convince me that he left on his volition.’ Ira Kurzban spoke with Neptune two days after the coup, at a time ‘when the US was engaging in the same “wolf at the door” scenario with him. They told him Philippe’s men were coming up to the PM’s office to kill him and that the US could not protect him except if there was an orderly transition. He was in a no-win situation and I told him so. At that time, I did not get the impression at all that Neptune was furious at Aristide or anything of the sort. He felt trapped and resigned to the situation and not angry.’
Once Aristide was gone Neptune’s own room for manoeuvre vanished beneath his feet. Far from collude with the coup makers, however, Neptune refused to have anything to do with the friends of Haiti and their new version of ‘constitutional democracy’. He read out Aristide’s letter, he resigned, he waited until it seemed safe to leave his office, and then he withdrew into a principled non-compliance with the post-Aristide order of things. In 2004-2005 Foley was desperate to persuade a leading figure in Lavalas ― someone like Neptune ― freely and voluntarily to endorse the new government that the US and France had imposed on Haiti. Foley needed a credible political figure to embrace his new version of the old American plan for Haiti. Neptune refused to do it. As a result he spent the following two years in jail.
* * * * *
In the short-term, it would be hard to deny that the forced removal of Aristide’s government in February 2004 was probably the most spectacular success of a US administration that is not likely to be remembered for the brilliance of its foreign policy. Arguably, the long effort to contain, discredit and then overthrow Lavalas in the first years of the twenty-first century constitutes the most successful exercise of neo-imperial sabotage since the toppling of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in 1990. In many ways it was much more successful, at least in the short-term, than previous imperial triumphs in Iraq (2003), Panama (1989), Grenada (1983), Chile (1973), the Congo (1960), Guatemala (1954) or Iran (1953)... Not only did the coup of 2004 topple one of the most popular governments in Latin America but it managed to topple it in a manner that wasn’t widely criticised or even recognised as a coup at all.
In the longer term, however, the situation is less clear-cut. When Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez visited Port-au-Prince in March 2007 he was met by many thousands of cheering people. The slogan on the streets that day was ‘Vive Chavez, Vive Aristide, aba Bush!’ When and if Aristide is allowed to return to Haiti, admits a minister in the current government, it is more than likely that many hundreds of thousands of people will turn out to welcome him home. No, insists Cap-Haïtien journalist Alinx Albert Obas ― ‘if Aristide came back on a plane tomorrow then three or four million people would come out and cheer him.’
Whenever Aristide returns he will almost certainly remain the most popular and most influential man in the country, and he will return with his commitment to non-violent political transformation intact. When he returns, moreover, he will no longer be shackled by the constraints of diplomacy and economic dependency that so powerfully shaped his last years in power.
Perhaps it’s not for nothing that the defenders of Haiti’s status quo are still terrified by the prospect of this return, and remain determined to prevent it at all costs.