El Payaso: Washington’s Amiable Entertainer – The good works of Haiti’s interim-Prime Minister Gerard Latortue

• Latortue has asserted that the average Haitian does not know CARICOM exists, and that an official in the previous administration didn’t even know what the acronym stands for – ouch! What Latortue didn’t mention was that until Washington imposed him on Haiti, even fewer Haitians had ever heard of him.

• Latortue says that Haiti derives more benefits from its relationship with the Dominican Republic than it does from its inclusion in the Caribbean Community trading bloc – perhaps he is taking into account mounting reports that the Dominican Republic was allegedly used as a training ground and an arsenal for rebels intent on deposing Haiti’s democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

• Latortue also has charged that some in the Caribbean Community are unabashed promoters of Aristide’s Lavalas Party, but this ignores the fact that the CARICOM Heads of Government confronted Aristide about Haiti’s slow advancement towards democracy at the Special Summit of the Americas in January, and that Lavalas was and remains a legal party, which is more than can be said for Latortue’s status.

• In remarks, which outraged many specialists close to the scene, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan strongly rebuked Aristide just before the Haitian leader was forced to leave Port-au-Prince and go into exile, for allegedly encouraging lawlessness and participating in the illicit drug trade. But Annan presented no evidence to buttress his charge, nor did a highly critical report on Aristide authored by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Haiti, John Reginald Dumas – something which was noted by the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis in an interview that he gave to COHA last week. Prime Minister Denzil Douglas stated that he does not support the view that Aristide contributed to the flourishing of the drug trade, which had been alleged by the Dumas report, and that the real issue at hand is that a democratically-elected president was overthrown and little has been done so far to redress that fact.

• By adopting Washington’s scenario on Haiti and its bad mouthing of Aristide, Annan signed on to the spurious charges leveled against the Haitian leader by Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as his stalling tactic when there was still time to save the Aristide government.

• The Caribbean Community has been one of Aristide’s most stalwart institutional backers, along with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), since the ousted president alleged that Washington orchestrated his removal.

• CARICOM and the CBC have been increasingly skeptical towards a smooth-talking, two-faced Latortue who expects that because he is now being backed by the UN this automatically grants him legitimacy as an authentic democratic figure.

• The Organization of American States (OAS), unlike the UN, has decided to undertake an investigation of the events in Haiti leading up to Aristide’s abrupt departure on February 29, 2004, something that the UN has expressed no interest in doing.

• The OAS investigation might also evoke a U.S. backlash against the Caribbean Community.

What does CARICOM stand for, anyway?
Nursing a bruised ego resulting from CARICOM’s coolness towards his rule, Interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue recently attempted to establish some semblance of legitimacy after enduring months of embarrassing diplomatic non-recognition from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Haiti has been a full member since July 2002. Speaking at what had to be the makings of a pep rally for himself in Washington, DC, organized by two conservative think tanks. Latortue condemned CARICOM for its supposed obscurity and irrelevance. A former UN agency bureaucrat, Latortue stated that he hopes to continue working with CARICOM, but only if ordinary Haitians along with members of the island’s government are educated about the purpose of the organization and how exactly the trading bloc is useful to them.
This obviously deprecatory remark was presented at a June 10 address co-sponsored by the virulently anti-Aristide Haiti Democracy Project and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, in response to a question by a Washington Post reporter that made reference to CARICOM’s strong opposition to Latortue’s administration. The prime minister retorted that Haiti has benefited little from its association with CARICOM, claiming that Haiti has gained more from its ties with neighboring Dominican Republic, a historically strained partnership marred by bitter racial politics, massacres and fierce fights over Haitians attempting to illegally migrate into their country’s better off neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

CARICOM comes to Aristide’s Aid
The Caribbean Community has stalwartly supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s right to rule, ever since the CARICOM heads of government were informed that the democratically-elected Haitian president had boarded a hastily arranged 6:15 a.m. flight to an unknown destination on February 29, under the wheedling counsel of U.S. ambassador to Haiti, James Foley. In turn, the embassy was being guided by the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, a protégé of Aristide’s archconservative nemesis, Jesse Helms, the former Republican Senator from North Carolina, who chaired the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The CARICOM heads of government assembled two days later in Kingston, Jamaica, for an emergency session to consider the situation in Haiti. A little over two weeks after Aristide’s surreptitious departure from Haiti to the Central African Republic (CAR), a delegation, including representatives of CARICOM, landed in that country to meet with the embattled leader and escort him to Jamaica, where he had been invited, on humanitarian grounds, to visit the country by its prime minister, P.J. Patterson. The delegation comprised Jamaican parliamentarian Sharon Hay-Webster, representing Jamaica and CARICOM; Sidney Williams, former Ambassador to the Bahamas; Aristide’s attorney, Ira Kurzban; Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif), and U.S.-born Randall Robinson, the founder of a policy group focusing on African and Caribbean issues, TransAfrica Forum. Aristide immediately told them that the U.S. had overthrown his government, an accusation the White House characterizes as “complete nonsense” to this day.

Given the persisting suspicion surrounding the circumstances of Aristide’s departure, CARICOM adopted a chilly and reserved position towards Latortue’s interim government and stressed “the importance of holding free and fair elections to ensure a return to constitutional democracy in an acceptable time frame.” The prime minister of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, Dr. Denzil L. Douglas, explained the Caribbean Community’s position towards Haiti during his interview with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “We have no problem with Haiti! I think that needs to be made very clear … Haiti still holds membership in CARICOM. We have not suspended Haiti, but we have a problem with the way the head of that government is continuing to run the affairs of the country without addressing the fundamental issue, that is the way the elected president was removed from office,” he said.

Latortue’s missive missed its Target
Following CARICOM’s initial rebuff of Latortue, the 15th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Caribbean Community Government Heads (March 25-26, 2004) met at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank Headquarters in St. Kitts. At the time, it received a conciliatory letter from Prime Minister Latortue dated March 25, in which he tried to mend fences by backing off from earlier hostile statements concerning Jamaica. But at least for Representative Maxine Waters, it didn’t seem to work. She stated shortly afterward, that, “Gerard Latortue demonstrated his ignorance and his allegiance to the coup plotters by first announcing he was severing diplomatic relations with Jamaica and then trying to force our acceptance of him at the inter-sessional Caribbean Community (CARICOM) meeting held in St. Kitts.” In light of the Latortue letter, the Heads of Government agreed to review the matter at their next scheduled meeting in July 2004. However, CARICOM voted against conferring recognition on Latortue’s administration at the March meeting, and discussed a formal request for an investigation by the United Nations, a proposal that was dropped when the U.S. and France threatened to veto any resolution presented to that effect.

The government leaders also expressed their gratitude to the outgoing Chairman of CARICOM, Jamaica’s Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, for his leadership in guiding the Caribbean Community on the Haitian crisis, and thanked Kingston for temporarily accommodating Aristide before he departed at the end of May for South Africa.

Lost in Translation?
In the course of his COHA interview, Prime Minister Denzil L. Douglas discussed Latortue’s letter. “He is saying that what the press reported which caused our reaction in CARICOM is not what he said,” regarding his sentiments towards Jamaica. (On March 15, Latortue’s government recalled Haiti’s ambassador to Jamaica, shortly before Aristide and the delegation accompanying him from the Central African Republic had landed in Kingston.) The St. Kitts official added, “He said it could have been a matter of interpretation because of the language translation.” Yet Latortue’s façade of supposed deference to CARICOM has once again been replaced by an asperity in his tone due to that organization’s success in initiating an OAS investigation into Aristide’s February 29 exodus. Revealing his true contempt for CARICOM on June 10, Latortue intimated that some Caribbean government heads have been complicit in using the trading bloc to promote and protect Aristide’s Lavalas Party.

Oddly enough, The Jamaica Observer reported on June 6 that “regional sources” said that Interim Prime Minister Latortue wrote another letter – this time to Jamaica’s Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson – saying that he wishes to send an ambassador back to Jamaica after defiantly removing Haiti’s ambassador in a hostile response to Aristide’s visit there. If Latortue were half the pitchman he thinks he is, he would realize that this kind of flip-flopping on the message he was trying to get out to his Caribbean colleagues was entirely unproductive, leaving those who were inclined to buy into his rhetoric wondering, ‘What does he stand for, anyway?’ Latortue also reportedly expressed “deep regret” at the existing estrangement between Kingston and Port-au-Prince over the Aristide issue.

It is important to note though that Latortue sent this missive just before the OAS arrived at its decision on the night of June 8 to investigate the removal of Aristide at CARICOM’s prompting, and prior to Latortue’s condescending remarks about CARICOM on June 10. Thus, it is not entirely clear what will be the effects of Latortue’s stance, as well as the positions of the UN, the U.S. and France, towards the Caribbean Community, particularly if and when the OAS investigation gets underway.

Latortue is also bitter over what he feels is a misguided campaign by the majority faction of the Congressional Black Caucus to undermine the legitimacy of his fledgling administration. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif), a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member, introduced the TRUTH (The Responsibility to Uncover the Truth about Haiti) Act (H.R. 3919) in the House of Representatives in March, co-sponsored by CBC Haiti Task Force Co-Chair John Conyers and 23 other CBC members. This Act, according to www.haitiaction.net, calls for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate, among other questions, “To what extent did the U.S. impede efforts by the international community, particularly the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, to prevent the overthrow of the democratically-elected Government of Haiti?” Moreover, Congresswoman Maxine Waters has accused the Latortue government of sanctioning the persecution of Lavalas party supporters, declaring in a May 5 statement that, “Lavalas members have been found shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. There are reports of Lavalas members being placed in a container and drowned at sea … Delegations from Amnesty International, the National Lawyers Guild and Let Haiti Live have documented the repression and killing of Lavalas party members.” Latortue scoffed at such allegations in his speech at the CSIS in Washington, DC, by dismissing them as “simply untrue.” Meanwhile, Lavalas officials as well as members continue to be detained in Haiti, in large numbers – including the country’s last prime minister, Yvon Neptune – as well as in the U.S. on so-called drug charges.

On the other hand, some of the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus under the direction of the Chair, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), have become more accommodating to the Haitian prime minister, much to the chagrin of the TransAfrica Forum. Its president, Bill Fletcher, Jr., chastised the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for holding a May 5 meeting with Gerard Latortue. (Actually, at least 22 members of the 39-member group refused to attend the gathering, as Waters, a former CBC chairwoman was quick to point out, soon after the forum was held.) “It seems to me that anyone of conscience should turn their back on the prime minister. There is nothing to talk to him about except resigning,” said Fletcher, Jr. Nevertheless, the Congressional Black Caucus asked Latortue to work on re-establishing a constructive working relationship with the Caribbean Community.

CARICOM had given a clear sermon to Aristide
In CARICOM’s defense, Prime Minister Dr. Douglas rejects any suggestion that the Caribbean Community has been an apologist for Aristide and his Lavalas Party. He stated that the heads of government had presented their concerns about the slow advancement of Haitian democracy to President Aristide at the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico (January 12-13, 2004). “We engaged Aristide in a caucus lasting several hours, and one of our greatest concerns then was that we were disappointed that democracy had not advanced in the way we thought it would have advanced in Haiti. We knew then that the opposition had taken a very, very difficult position of non-participation unless the government was removed, but we felt that the situation could have been better advanced before that stage,” he said.

Is the UN doing Washington’s work?
Similar accusative statements have been put forward by United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who affirmed in an April 20 report his belief that Aristide had failed to advance the cause of democracy and create an environment in Haiti that made it conducive to lawlessness. Furthermore, a Washington Post article on April 21 reported that, “Annan indicated that Aristide, who was overthrown in a 1991 military coup, had committed a fatal mistake by disbanding the army in 1995 after his return to power.” This statement alone reveals how far off the UN official has been on Haitian realities. What he apparently didn’t know was that the Haitian military was not akin to the Swiss Guard, but was a murderous body, more into drug trafficking and rape, than in protecting the citizenry.

“I really am surprised, to be frank with you, that this is being said as one of his (Aristide’s) failings,” remarked Prime Minister Dr. Douglas. “Yes, if he had an army on his side, the army would have put down the rebels and there would have been intense bloodshed, but let us not forget what happened here. There was a police force which was not properly trained, which did not have the firepower that the rebels had.” The prime minister continued, “It is alleged that the rebels were trained in the neighboring country of the Dominican Republic. They were well fitted out. They had better and more sophisticated weapons. And you would recall that it was when the required military support, in terms of hardware and anti-riot gear that the police needed to maintain law and order, was on its way from South Africa. The same Saturday night-Sunday morning that the plane had arrived in Jamaica and was being prepared to go over to Haiti with the arms – Aristide was overthrown. Let us not forget that!” Prime Minister Douglas maintains, however, that he is confident that the UN is not deliberately aligning itself with Washington’s stance on Haiti. But there is a good deal of evidence in the other direction.

The St. Kitts-Nevis prime minister explained that President Aristide probably felt that he had to “civilianize” the military since that body was fundamentally responsible for much of the human rights atrocities that Haiti suffered in the past. He also suggested that, given that the remnants of the army banded together as rebels to overthrow Aristide in February, maybe the second overthrow would have taken place even more rapidly than it did had the army remained in place.

Critics: Drug Trade Superseded Democracy?
The Prime Minister also said he does not subscribe to the view that Aristide actively supported the flourishing drug trade in Haiti, an oft repeated charge about the ousted Haitian president which the UN’s Kofi Annan had taken note of in the scathing 33-page April 20 report which had been prepared by the Trinidad national, Reginald Dumas, and which read as if it had been commissioned by U.S. State Department ideologues like Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, rather than by a dispassionate international official. On June 10, Latortue reiterated the charge about Aristide’s involvement in the drug trade, nine days after the U.S.-led force in Haiti transferred authority to the United Nations. This spiel by the now very experienced pitchman was met with thunderous applause by his smartly attired fan club present in the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There seemed to be little love or even respect in the CSIS auditorium on June 10 among the professional Haitian expatriates in Washington, DC, for their democratically-elected president. However, CARICOM remains determined to continue to defend Aristide on the basis of principle rather than on popularity or any desire to express solidarity with Washington, even at the risk of provoking a harsh reaction from the U.S. towards the Caribbean nations. The Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, a federation with a total population of only 45,000, like other CARICOM Heads of Government, remarkably enough, does not seem prepared to back down on the Haiti issue. “We do not have any evidence of the U.S. attempting to create any backlash. Of course, we are aware that the possibility exists…The United States’ government is the powerful government. It’s our biggest neighbor…but we are acting here in our own national interests, just as the United States of America acts in its own…”