Today, Secretary of State Colin Powell makes a one day visit to Haiti, a suffering country in which he has been intimately involved in several key moments of its history, usually to Haiti’s great loss. On arriving in Haiti, Powell was greeted by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, an invention of Powell’s own creation and the result of a misuse of Haiti’s constitutional process. Since then, Latortue and his infamous Justice Minister, Bernard Gousse, have been carrying on a relentless and vindictive campaign against former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, as well as the deposed president’s Lavalas Party. High ranking members of the former Aristide government like Yvone Neptune, have been arrested and consigned to prison, on, at best, flimsy charges and with no evidence being presented. The country’s most revered priest, Father Jean Juste, grotesquely enough, had also been imprisoned but just yesterday was released. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Gousse, perhaps’ the country’s most unsavory figure and its local Torquemada, carries out a personal vendetta against anyone related to the former Aristide government.
Who is Powell encountering today in Haiti? He is being hosted by Prime Minister Latortue, a thoroughly counterfeit, if jocose, figure who has no roots in the country and who has turned in a hapless performance in every aspect of governance, whether it be the everyday running of the country or his total failure to deal with the aftermath of tropical storm Jeanne which caused several thousand deaths, and devastated the country, Latortue, together with Justice Minister Gousse, has caricatured the rule of law by a disrespect for basic civility. Powell’s strategy has been an abject failure. The interim government has near zero popularity, and if a fair election takes place on schedule next year, there is little doubt that, if permitted to participate, Aristide’s Lavalas would win by a landslide.
Powell’s involvement with Haiti goes back to 1994, when he accompanied former President Jimmy Carter as part of the latter’s delegation to persuade the country‘s military junta to dissolve. The scandalous result of that mission was to provide for the safe flight into exile, along with millions of dollars in earnings from his illicit drug involvement, of General Raoul Cedras, the head of Haiti’s universally condemned military regime that ruled the country from 1991 to 1994. Cedras was eventually toppled just before a U.S.-led intervention force landed in Haiti after the U.S., along with scores of other nations, had earlier introduced an embargo against the regime. The Carter delegation was so anxious to facilitate Cedras’ flight into exile that they even agreed to arrange for the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince to rent the mansion of Cedras, the country’s prime human rights violator (ultimately responsible for the murders of 5,000 civilian supporters of the then-exiled Aristide), before he would agree to depart Haiti and spare the country of armed resistance.
When President Bush first took office he continued the political and economic freeze that had begun to be formulated at the end of the Clinton administration. At the time, and before he retired, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who from his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the real director of the campaign of economic asphyxiation and political isolation against Haiti, orchestrated a freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to the island by the U.S. and other international donors. The freeze was also extended to the sale of riot control gear and police equipment which would have provided the Aristide government with the ability to cope with the high levels of crime and gang warfare being engaged by both pro- and anti-Aristide factions in Port-au-Prince.
Conspiring to Bring Down a Constitutional Government
Starting in September 2003, a handful of former members of the old demobilized Haitian military crossed the Dominican border into Haiti and began their march first to Gonaives and then, on February 29, into Port-au-Prince, upon the flight of Aristide. The President’s departure came as a result of Powell joining in a script calling for the de-facto ouster of a constitutional president by a “gang of thugs.”
In Aristide’s final days and hours on the island, Powell’s policy toward Haiti could be described at best as irrelevant, and at worst as a clever effort to stand by as a coup de main came down on Haitian democracy with the implicitly threatening circumstances surrounding Aristide’s removal. Secretary Powell’s indefensible position was that dispatching a peace force to the island at the time would be premature and that the proper procedure instead would be for the Aristide government having to achieve a political settlement with the opposition prior to any decision about the introduction of outside peacekeeping forces.
Powell’s stance was completely devoid of credibility since it condemned Haiti to precisely what the Secretary of State previously had stated that the U.S. wanted to avoid at all costs: “regime change.” This would be through an extra-constitutional change of government in Haiti whereby “the elected president … is forced out of office by thugs” as he put it. But a peace force was needed then, when a constitutionally-elected government was about to be overthrown by an opposition that increasingly was being taken over by armed war criminals from the era of military rule, and not, in the unlikely eventuality, after a political settlement was reached. Then, presumably, such forces would no longer be required.
But the catch was that Powell, along with the UN’s Kofi Annan, insisted in a pharaonic style that no UN/US sanctioned police force would be introduced until a political settlement had occurred between contending forces in Haiti. Powell’s formula flouted increasingly dramatic realities on the ground. To begin, the legitimate government of Haiti was being threatened at the time by a relatively small group of armed militants against which the country’s untrained and under-equipped police force could not adequately cope. Furthermore, most of the violence from September onward had been at the hands of the so-called non-violent opposition, which was being joined by increasingly violent factions. The island’s most influential opposition faction, the Group of 184, vigorously subscribed to a “zero-option” strategy whereby it adamantly refused to enter into a dialogue, let alone be prepared to negotiate with the Aristide government under any terms or conditions. This policy was central to the opposition’s survival because such negotiations, if successful, would inevitably lead to elections which its candidates would almost certainly lose. However, Powell would not hear of any other formula. This is when he fell back on pure casuistry, preordaining the demise of constitutional rule in Haiti and a dent in his personal fabric.
It Takes Three to Negotiate
At the time, Aristide had indicated a willingness to accept every condition demanded of him by the CARICOM prime ministers, the U.S. and the Organization of American States. But the question needed to be asked, who made up the opposition and why did Powell feel they had an automatic claim to co-equal status in the government? At best, the opposition was thought to represent no more than 20 percent of the population. For example, in terms of public manifestation, the anti-Aristide forces were able to turn out at most 20,000 partisans in a major public display shortly before Aristide had to flee the country. As for the government, at least 300,000 (and perhaps twice that number) marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince in support of it several days later.
In terms of resorting to violence, the opposition was at least as guilty as the government militants. In fact, in a parade staged in Port-au-Prince near the end of Aristide’s rule, opposition gangs, led by Evans Paul, an important opposition figure, called for all schools and hospitals to be closed until Aristide stepped down from power. During that increasingly unruly parade, several schools were in fact torched, a number of teachers and students were roughed up, and market stalls were upended. Characteristically, police actions against the opposition occurred only after their marchers had diverged from the parade route which previously had been filed by the leadership with the police, which was reminiscent of action taken by the authorities in New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami against anti-globalization protesters who had strayed from the route that parade officials had filed.
Secretary Powell’s assumption at the time that the opposition was even remotely interested in a peaceful settlement was naïve and was further undermined by a subsequent statement of André Apaid, a main leader of the Group of 184, urging the leaders of the “gang of thugs,” (to use Powell’s description), who had taken over Gonaives, not to turn in their weapons because insurrection can be justified in the struggle against repression. The opposition, which was made all the more dangerous as its adherents were being swelled by military and paramilitary personnel who fled into exile after the military junta had been expelled by U.S. forces, now returned to the country and soon were staging an armed takeover of Haitian cities, after which wanton sacking was involved, and along with it, the end of any prospects for its constitutional rule.