Giving Haitian Self-Rule a Bad Name

  • The euphemistically named “interim government” in Haiti is in fact flagrantly unconstitutional and not even remotely legitimate; rather, it represents de facto rule, distinguished primarily by its U.S. authorship.
  • This condition exposes its major flaw: the current government has no roots in the country and demonstrably has far less popular support than Washington’s leftist foes, the Castro government in Cuba or the Chávez government in Venezuela.
  • Washington’s enthusiastic embrace of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, whose office has no legal sanction, reflects this country’s longtime involvement in gestating a mechanism that enabled the White House to achieve its long-cherished aspiration of ridding itself of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  • A prompt move towards full elections in which Lavalas and Aristide are allowed to contest is essential to resuscitate Haiti’s democracy and meet Washington’s alleged imperative for free and fair elections—though needless to say, the Bush administration has no intention of allowing such a scenario to transpire.

On Thursday, June 10, Latortue was warmly welcomed to Washington by the Bush administration—in the person of Assistant Secretary of State for Interamerican Affairs Roger Noriega—and at a policy address hosted by two conservative Washington thinktanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Haiti Democracy Project, where he was rapturously received by a somewhat homogeneous audience including many Washington-area Haitian-Americans. Yet lost in this orgy of self-congratulation on the part of Latortue and his local rightwing supporters was any mention of the complete illegality and unconstitutionality of his government as presently formed, or the devious role of the Bush administration’s hardline Latin America policymakers— the very ones who are now enthusiastically endorsing Latortue—in facilitating the unseating of the democratically elected and constitutionally sanctioned Aristide.

The Bush administration’s enthusiastic embrace of Latortue runs counter to fundamental legal and constitutional norms respected in the international community and in inter-American law, and serves only to obscure the degree of complicity and cynicism of the State Department under Secretary of State Colin Powell and the role of his Interamerican bureau in the recent violent transfer of power. Roger Noriega’s enthusiastic efforts to laud Washington’s latest Latin American servitor regime is only the most recent illustration of the U.S.’s embracing inauthentic leaders. It provides still further evidence that the Latortue regime is fundamentally illegitimate, an unelected government in which Latortue rules by decree in the absence of any legislative process—the very flaw for which Washington relentlessly lashed Aristide.

A Constitution Trampled
In the months since President Aristide’s deposition, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the legal elements—or lack thereof—of this velvet coup d’etat. This trend has certainly been encouraged by the Bush administration, which strenuously promoted the somewhat far-fetched conclusion that the cure for Haiti’s many dilemmas was simply to assert by fiat the proposition that the Latortue government is legitimate.

It is essential to note that President Aristide was in fact elected to office in 2000 for a five year term, set to conclude on February 2006 except in cases of impeachment, death, resignation or incapacity. President Bush and all of his predecessors were inaugurated under virtually identical provisions for the circumstances under which their terms could be terminated. Aristide is alive, and no arguments have been presented indicating he is incapacitated; he has certainly not been impeached, and maintains that he has not resigned, a conclusion that has been confirmed by Professor Bryant Freeman of the University of Kansas, who translated the letter that Aristide apparently wrote before departing the country. In that case, the presidency of Haiti remains filled and the installation of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Boniface Alexandre following Aristide’s departure is entirely meaningless and legally null and void.

It is also the case that the process by which Alexandre was sworn in was constitutionally unsound, since Article 149 of the Haitian Constitution requires that this be done by the legislature, which played no role in the hasty installation of Alexandre. In fact, the legislature had been rendered defunct last January by the expiration of the terms of a third of its members and the subsequent relentless boycott of elections that could fill these seats by the opposition. Given the fundamental illegitimacy of the purported presidential succession, however, this fact remains a moot point.

Latortue: Prime Ministerial Impostor

The constitutional grounding for the appointment of a previously obscure and faceless international bureaucrat, Gerard Latortue, as interim prime minister—now praised as Haiti’s savior by cadres of Aristide bashers, jubilant at the ouster of a man they deemed to be a dangerous ally of Haiti’s poor—is perhaps even more suspect. The formal process by which Latortue was selected has been highly publicized: three representatives (one from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, one from the party of Fanmi Lavalas and one from the Haitian opposition parties) selected a group of seven, who ultimately selected Latortue to serve as prime minister. This rigmarole now clamors to be taken seriously.

Constitutional Shenanigans

Forgotten, lost or ignored was the extant Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, appointed by President Aristide and confirmed by the Haitian legislature as is constitutionally required, who like Aristide remains alive, capable and unimpeached, and had the added virtue of remaining in Haiti and in his office. Without even attempting to wrap Neptune’s ouster and Latortue’s installation in the guise of constitutionality, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince imported their latest Haitian puppet from Florida, where Latortue has lived for decades (in violation of a constitutional requirement that Haitian presidents be resident in the country for at least five years.) Some of his former Haitian colleagues insist that he has been away from the island so long that his Haitian dialect has markedly deteriorated.

Despite the fact that Latortue’s legitimacy is thus by any measure even more tenuous than that of Alexandre, he has quietly taken firm control of a range of executive functions, including a number that the Haitian constitution reserves for the country’s president—namely, the appointment of governmental officials and the conduct of foreign policy. Given his intimate relationship with Washington, foreign policy is perhaps the only area of governmental administration that the otherwise hapless Latortue has conducted with any degree of enthusiasm, conveniently ignoring the constitutional provision that places it outside his purview. Meanwhile, Alexandre is nowhere to be seen and rarely heard from, even on ceremonial occasions that are traditional venues for presidential speeches. Having served as the essential element of the charade that the presidency of the exiled Aristide was defunct, he appears to have outlived his usefulness and thus has entered into a well-paid de facto retirement.

Legitimacy by Fiat
Yet despite the preponderance of evidence suggesting that the government of Prime Minister Latortue has no more constitutional sanction than the brutally repressive junta that ousted President Aristide in 1991, Washington’s embrace of it proved sufficient to win the endorsements of the Latortue administration by the majority of European Union countries and the permanent Security Council powers. In the General Assembly, however, nearly a third of the membership—including the members of CARICOM, Venezuela, and over fifty African nations—remain opposed to the anti-Aristide coup and have refused to recognize the new government.

During this period, the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has continued to do what is has done for years, if not decades: namely, rule as the country’s pro-consul. It has ensured that the Latortue government be granted the longest possible tenure, now expected to last through the anticipated end of Aristide’s term in early 2006. The public explanation for this timetable insists that the prolonged delay in elections is necessary in order for a fair vote to be organized and a climate of security established. Such an intention, even if laudable, is in flagrant violation of Haiti’s constitutional provision that elections be held within ninety days of the establishment of an interim government.

While such a deadline may seem unrealistic given Haiti’s current conditions, it would seem appropriate to proceed with all possible speed to full elections and exert all efforts to overcome logistical barriers to their being staged, in deference to the constitutional prescription on this subject. Instead, it appears that the Latortue government is to be allowed to finish the remainder of the scheduled presidential term while elections are organized at a leisurely pace—a timetable that Washington hopes will prove sufficient for the undoing of Aristide’s aggressively leftist and populist agenda. This scenario for Haiti is precisely the opposite course that Washington insisted on in Iraq, where an early election and a return to sovereignty were put on a fast track by a flip-flopping Powell.

An Imported Insurgency
The enthusiastic welcome given by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his hard-right staffers—Assistant Secretary of Interamerican Affairs Roger Noriega and the just retired White House envoy Otto Reich—to Latortue is hardly surprising given that the Bush administration and its Washington predecessors had aided and abetted the leaders of the recent rebellion for over a decade. Seeking to slow down Aristide’s implementation of a radical social and economic program aimed at the island’s desperately poor, Washington began to develop links to Haiti’s hard-right in the early 1990s, largely under the auspices of the taxpayer-funded International Republican Institute. Subsequently, current rebel leader Guy Philippe participated in training camps run by the U.S. military in Ecuador and served as a CIA informer in the Haitian national police. Paul Arcelin, who was the principal fundraiser for the rebels in the Dominican Republic and southern Florida, served simultaneously as a fundraiser for the opposition groups Democratic Convergence and Group 184, which have received extensive funding from the quasi-governmental organization International Republican Institute (which supports its Haiti activities through appropriations from the U.S. Agency for International Development, itself funded by Congress.) Moreover, the heavy weaponry used by the rebels—M-16s that dwarfed the scant resources available to the Haitian police—have been linked to a recent shipment of U.S. government surplus weapons to the Dominican Republic.

Having thus planted crucial seeds for the rebellion, the Bush administration, acting through Secretary of State Powell’s instructions to the Port-au-Prince embassy, played a crucial role in the physical exile of Aristide himself as the rebels approached Port-au-Prince. The capital had been left largely undefended due to Washington’s calculated prohibition on the shipment of police equipment to Haiti or the deployment of an international police force to protect the democratically elected government—a deployment that was proposed by CARICOM among others but repeatedly vetoed by the U.S. In this context, Aristide’s forced ride to the airport and the stark choice he faced, under what had to be an atmosphere of near-hysteria, between a flight out of the country and an attempt to reach a safe haven without security in a city besieged by insurgents amounted to a choice between illegal deposition and illegal deposition.

As in the familiar script throughout much of Latin America, the ouster of the democratic leader was followed by the rapid deployment of U.S. Marines, which have subsequently been implicated in a number of human rights violations, including the arrest of folk singer Annette Auguste and an unwarranted attempted arrest of Mayor Moise Jean-Charles of Milot. Part of the problem is Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse, a sly, sinister figure who is known to covert Latortue’s post and is thought to be actively conspiring to replace him, and who many have likened to Haiti’s John Ashcroft. He has used the interim forces, including U.S. military units, to carry out his personal vendettas against his old political foes, namely a number of Lavalas leaders.

At the same time, the Marines have balked at making equipment available to address the acute humanitarian crisis triggered by the flood in Mapou, which is now accessible only by helicopter as all roads have been washed out. Humanitarian organizations were allowed to use helicopters for a day only after a wave of criticism of the Marines’ intransigence.

Democracy Battered, but Surviving?
As U.S. forces are replaced by the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, a profoundly illegitimate government, headed by Latortue, remains ensconced in the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, where it almost certainly will reign for nearly another two years before open elections are held. Despite Washington’s strenuous efforts to exile President Aristide from sight and mind, he remains the legitimately elected chief executive of Haiti and the leader of the largest political party in the country. Given the highly questionable and openly illegal manner in which the current administration was installed, elections should be held at the earliest possible date, with international monitors and full participation by the Lavalas party and by President Aristide himself, if he wishes to return to Haiti and resume his political life.

For decades, the United States has ranged freely across the hemisphere, plucking its favored ideological colleagues—in other words, those most amenable to promoting its narrowly perceived national interests—and installing them in power. These non-elected regimes subsequently did lasting damage to the integrity of democracy and the protection of human rights in their own country as well as in the hemisphere. While the violent transfer of power in Haiti has already dealt enormous blows to the country’s democratic institutions and its fragile economy, a slim opportunity still remains to recreate a semblance of genuine democratic process, through the prompt holding of elections, the investigation of human rights abuses, the prosecution of those responsible for events leading up to the president’s exile on February 29, and the disarmament of all. The burden now falls on the United Nations to do what it has neglected to attempt up to this point: aggressively advance this agenda. Unfortunately, tendentious statements by the Secretary-General’s special envoy to the country, Reginald Dumas, and by Kofi Annan himself, provide little cause for much optimism.