Taking a Closer Look at Washington’s Anti-Aristide Game Plan for Haiti

  • Murky circumstances surrounding the departure of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide may at last be clarified.
  • The resolution by the Organization of American States (OAS) in favor of an investigation of the U.S-orchestrated removal of the Haitian leader is a triumph for CARICOM, especially Jamaica, which stubbornly persisted in raising questions about the dubious circumstances surrounding Aristide’s ouster. It also represents a defeat for the U.S. and France, which self-servingly blocked any move towards an investigation by the UN – perhaps afraid of embarrassing revelations that might arise.
  • At long last, there is a clear acknowledgement by the OAS that the transfer of power in February may have violated the Interamerican Democratic Charter and represented an unconstitutional interruption of Haiti’s democratic process.
  • The strong stand taken by the OAS throws into sharp relief the listless performance of the United Nations, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his aide for Haiti, Reginald Dumas.
  • The OAS investigation should be followed by an international inquiry aimed at bringing to justice those responsible, both in Port-au-Prince and in Washington, for the illegitimate transfer of power in an atmosphere of violence.

An Unexpectedly Strong Stand
The OAS resolution, the subject of hours of debate at the General Assembly session on June 8, takes a firm stand on the democratic crisis in Haiti, despite attempts by ambassadors from the U.S. and the Haitian interim government to soften its language. It begins with an invocation of “the fundamental purposes of the OAS,” citing, among other things, “respect for democratic institutions” and “due regard for the principle of non-intervention.” The resolution also takes a subtle and necessary dig at the UN, calling attention to an earlier OAS resolution from February 26 which asked for “necessary and appropriate urgent measures . . . to address the crisis in Haiti” – measures that were obviously never taken, considering that Aristide’s government was overthrown a mere three days later.

Kofi Annan and his representative to Haiti, Reginald Dumas, as well as the UN Security Council have been widely condemned for their calculated inaction, no doubt attributable to the desire of hard-line State Department policymakers to see Aristide removed by any means possible. The motto of such policy zealots, like Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Roger Noriega, might well be, ‘One down (Aristide), two (Chávez and Castro) to go.’

Turning its attention to the future, the OAS calls for democratic elections in Haiti as soon as possible and legal accountability for those responsible for the loss of life and destruction of property that has plagued Haiti. Most importantly, the General Assembly instructs the Permanent Council to use “all necessary diplomatic initiatives” in order to “foster full restoration of democracy in Haiti.” The OAS resolution clearly acknowledges the breakdown of democratic institutions in Haiti, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Latortue government, and calls attention to what it ambiguously refers to as “questions surrounding [Aristide’s] resignation.”

Ouster, kidnapping or resignation?
The abrupt and surreptitious exile of former president Aristide took place following several weeks of violent turmoil in Haiti as the rule of law broke down in the face of the rebel advance towards Port-au-Prince. On February 29, Aristide was escorted by Marines from the U.S. embassy to a U.S.-supplied aircraft and flown, without knowledge of his destination, to the Central African Republic. At the time, the former president said that he left to prevent further bloodshed, but he has since accused both the United States and France of being involved in his removal and has filed suit to this effect in both countries.

Undermining Democracy
CARICOM and a number of other nations, including Venezuela and 53 Africa Union countries led by South Africa, have expressed concerns about the dangerous precedent set by the removal of Aristide, a democratically elected leader, by military force. Aristide had already been deposed once by the Haitian military in 1991, only nine months after his 1990 election as Haiti’s first democratically-chosen president. He was eventually restored to office by the Clinton administration in 1994 in an effort to staunch the politically risky influx of Haitian boat people to Florida. Upon his return to power, he dissolved the Haitian military, which had supported the brutal three-year military regime. However, he did not have the resources to disarm the former soldiers — something that the U.S. military had failed to do — and many of the most notorious members of the regime took refuge in the Dominican Republic, returning to Haiti at the beginning of this year as leaders of the armed uprising.

Election Controversy
After completing the remainder of his first term, Aristide was constitutionally forbidden to stand for a second consecutive term in 1995, but won the office again in the controversial November 2000 elections. Opposition groups boycotted the presidential election in protest against alleged fraud during legislative elections the preceding May. However, international monitors – including OAS observers – who supervised the legislative election asserted at the time that the balloting was generally free and fair. The eventual controversy centered around an OAS finding that eight senate seats should have gone on to “run-off” elections. Subsequently, seven of the eight senators, all from Aristide’s Lavalas party, resigned their seats at his urging, while the remaining senator, from an opposition party, insisted on retaining his seat.

Exploiting the System
The opposition rejected the senators’ goodwill gesture and continued to refuse to participate in the democratic process, even going to the extent of failing to nominate representatives to the provisional electoral council that had to be formed prior to any elections. The Democratic Convergence and Group 184, the most prominent opposition organizations, draw most of their supporters from Haiti’s affluent business community and former supporters of the military junta. According to polling data, they commanded at most eight percent of the vote, in contrast to Aristide, who had a large following among Haiti’s poor, attracting two-thirds of the vote in 1990. Both opposition groups have received funding from the United States, which had always felt somewhat uncomfortable with Aristide’s political radicalism and his alleged ties to Castro’s Cuba. By frustrating the democratic process, Group 184 and its patrons in Washington – who saw to it that most international aid to the island was blocked – were able to undermine Aristide’s rule, severely limiting his effectiveness and delegitimizing the democratic process itself.

The crisis peaked in January when the terms of the lower house and one-third of the upper house of the Haitian legislature expired, leaving that body unable to legally conduct business. The opposition continued to refuse to participate in elections and immediately began to accuse Aristide of ruling by fiat when their unwillingness to take part in the democratic process forced him to govern without a sitting legislature. While Aristide showed himself to be willing to comply with virtually any condition for a return to political normalcy, the opposition remained intransigent, even raising their demands to include Aristide’s resignation.

Calculated Inaction
As rebel forces consisting of former members of the discredited and disbanded military and paramilitary forces from the notorious vigilante group, the FRAPH, approached Port-au-Prince, the U.S. refused to send troops to support Aristide’s government without an agreement between Aristide and his opponents. Moreover, Washington instructed its UN ambassador, John Negroponte, to block any move to send an international force to protect the Aristide government. The first significant contingent of U.S. troops did not enter Haiti until after the president had departed. The United States’ position allowed the opposition groups to stubbornly refuse to compromise, eventually destabilizing the political situation to the point where Aristide’s overthrow was inevitable.

The Interim Government
After Aristide’s departure into exile, the head of Haiti’s Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, assumed the presidency while a council of three Haitians hand-picked by the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince nominated Gerard Latortue to serve as Haiti’s prime minister. Latortue replaced the prime minister appointed by Aristide, despite the fact that Prime Minister Yvon Neptune remained in Port-au-Prince, willing to continue to serve in his office.

Latortue, a former foreign minister and UN official who has lived in the United States since 1988, was deemed by U.S. authorities to be politically acceptable – though in fact he is ineligible to serve as Haiti’s prime minister under the terms of the Haitian constitution because of his extended foreign residency. Latortue’s supposedly non-partisan government has since been widely criticized not only for its failure to include members of the Lavalas political party, but also for its single-minded hounding and even jailing of former Aristide officials. Prominent members of Lavalas have felt it necessary to go into hiding, while others have been arrested for crimes allegedly committed while Aristide was in office. Others were murdered solely because they were Lavalas members — murders that Latortue’s government has conspicuously failed to condemn.

The Latortue government’s close collusion with the U.S. was made even more apparent by his recent request that U.S. troops remain in Haiti in addition to the UN peacekeepers who are taking over at the end of June. Rather than being part of the UN mission, some U.S. troops would remain, but under their own command.

Is the UN Finally Taking Action?
The UN is in the process of sending a force of 8,000 soldiers and civilian police, led by Brazilian troops, to take over from the U.S., French and Canadian forces that have maintained security in Haiti since Aristide’s abrupt departure. The mission of the UN force includes training the local police force and disarming the militant groups whose demonstrations and eventual uprising led to Aristide’s forced departure. Both of these objectives were also part of the mission of the U.S. forces that restored Aristide to power in 1994, but those forces were withdrawn long before the objectives could be fulfilled, leaving Aristide to attempt to maintain order in a country filled with disaffected, armed and unemployed former soldiers.

While the UN has shown itself to be willing to commit troops and resources to support the interim government, it continues to show no interest in investigating the circumstances of Aristide’s removal from office or the horrendous atrocities now being visited upon pro-Aristide elements of the population. Such a probe would have to be approved by the UN Security Council, but the United States’ status as a permanent member would allow it to veto any such proposal. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a report in April, prepared under the supervision of the UN envoy to Haiti, Reginald Dumas, which was highly sympathetic to the opposition groups and accused the Aristide government of failing to advance the cause of democracy and contributing to lawlessness in Haiti.

A Crucial Moment for the OAS
The ousting of Aristide and his replacement by a weak caretaker government with a hapless prime minister, who is little better than a national embarrassment and is clearly intended to be a dependent of the U.S. ambassador in Port-au-Prince, has generated outrage in nearly one-third of the UN membership. Yet the Secretary General and a number of the permanent members of the UN Security Council still appear to be unconcerned about either the removal of a democratically elected president by an armed uprising or the interference in Haitian sovereignty by the United States. CARICOM and Venezuela have been the only significant voices in the hemisphere defending Aristide, and media and legislative circles within the United States have paid only perfunctory attention to the highly suspect circumstances surrounding Aristide’s removal. This shocking lack of attention to a clear violation of constitutionality in one of the hemisphere’s weakest democracies may finally be remedied by the upcoming OAS investigation. Having shown a disturbingly weak spine in the past when faced with a confrontation with the Bush administration, the OAS will need to prove itself capable of undertaking a thorough and critical investigation of the events surrounding the Aristide departure if it is to regain its flagging credibility as a proponent of democracy in the region. The spotlight is now on newly inaugurated Secretary General Miguel Ángel Rodríguez to see whether he will forcefully try to implement the resolution or allow it to drift into obscurity.