Haiti is a land of great beauty and of great suffering. The Haitian proverb, bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje (“The giver of the blow forgets, the bearer of the scar remembers”), is fitting for the abuse Haiti has suffered over the centuries at the hands of Spain, France, and the U.S., as well as its own tyrannical leaders. The 1990s were an especially frustrating time for Haitians, as the hope for transformation that came with the U.S. intervention in 1994 soon gave way to well-worn cynicism as the new government proved to be as corrupt and oppressive as the old ones.
Daniel Whitman was the Public Affairs Officer at Embassy Port-au-Prince in 1999-2001. He highlights the courage of the journalists who risked their lives to reach out to the public. He discusses the sham elections that occurred in 2000, the brutality of the Rene Préval and Jean-Bertrand Aristide regimes, and the staggering profits made from the illegal drug trade. Aristide’s henchmen even accused Whitman of killing well-renowned journalist Jean Dominique.
Whitman witnessed the atrocities committed and notes the almost universal disagreement the embassy had with U.S. policy and their frustration that Washington would not do more on human rights issues. He also praises the spirit of the Haitian people and their ability to push through adversity. He was interviewed by Charles Kennedy in 2012. He served as the Executive Director for ADST from 2006-07 and wrote A Haiti Chronicle about his experiences.
“It’s not your job to keep us alive. That’s our job. Your job is to show us the way.”
WHITMAN: I thought of [Haiti] as a troubled place with assassination and disease and misfortune, which of course it is, but I knew nothing much about Haiti.
Once I realized I was to accept the assignment to be the Public Affairs Officer in Port-au-Prince or quit, well, that was easy. I went to Haiti.….The assignment I most resisted became my best assignment….
For better or worse, I saw journalism as the sector that was most agile. We created a national association of journalists, an informal private association. There’d never been such a thing before. Each of the nine provinces, called arrondissements, had their little journalism association, but these are like four guys sitting under a tree having a beer.
They didn’t have a typewriter, they didn’t have a telephone, they didn’t have an office. But they were an association. And separately, they could do almost nothing. But combined with their colleagues in other provinces, arrondissements, they became a really formidable force.
There were 200 radio stations with no capital at all to support them. Most of these very active radio stations were run by people. In the daytime they would fix punctured bicycle tires and make $4 a day. At night they would literally get on the bicycle that would create generated electricity for a two-watt transmitter, and they were journalists. Which in social terms in Haiti is extremely prestigious. To be a journalist is to be a leader. To be a visionary of how society can be organized better.
And they had a spirit I cannot really describe. They had confidence and courage and determination, without resources. These are among the people that I’ve met in my life that I most admire. With everything going against them, the gangs and the killings and the intimidation and the death threats. Any time they would say something that was true, they would be threatened. I was threatened myself….I had the protection of an embassy; they didn’t. And I kept going to them saying, “Guys, what we’re doing could be dangerous. Do you really want to do this?”
We had this discussion many times and each time, they’d say, “Mr. Whitman, we appreciate the question. You do your job and we’ll do ours. It’s not your job to keep us alive. That’s our job. Your job is to show us the way. We have decided that it’s worth risking our lives to create reliable information for the public. We’ve made that decision. Thanks for the concern. We know that we could be killed, but we’ve decided to deal with that. Your job is to show us how to do what we want to do.” So I had this discussion many times, and a dozen of those people were killed.
I do have that on my conscience in a sense. On the other hand, they were very clear to me, “We want to do this. If you can give us four days in Miami to visit The Miami Herald and to see the Haitian community in Miami, please do that.” And I did….
These were mutually suspicious groups. The ones in Miami saw Haitians as wanting what they had. The Haitians saw the expatriates as the lucky bastards who got out when they didn’t. There was initial distrust. But a glass of beer can do wonders — whether they were pro-Aristide or against, and that’s how they wind up, in one faction or another.
Nevertheless, I went with them to Miami sometimes, and I saw their mutual interest far transcended the differences that they had, the suspicions, the belief or the disbelief in Aristide, who was everything to Haiti. I think he terribly betrayed his country many times, but many people believed him at that time, as I did initially until I found out otherwise. So the differences were extreme.
And yet, there’s something about the Haitian civic spirit, which doesn’t usually get mentioned. But it’s so powerful that their ability to cooperate amongst themselves, even when they drastically disagree on things, it’s exemplary….They were always extremely able to mobilize their very sadly violent history as proof of that….They had been enslaved, it’s an amazing story of the creation of Haiti in 1804. I think the only country in the world made up entirely of slaves, which liberated itself in its own country, without having to go to another place. It’s a very unique, remarkable history….
“It’s the corrupt leaders and the outsiders which have made Haiti such a sad case”
People say, “Why did it work in Dominican Republic next door better than Haiti?” I have an economic theory, which is worth what you’ve paid me for. I think the Haitian Revolution in trying to bring social justice to their country divided the units of production, the land, equally among people.
Now, this was a great social revolution and a great policy. But economically it was a disaster, because in the 18th century and early 19th century, production depended on haciendas, large holdings, maybe unjustly owned by one owner and treating the workers very badly. We have to divide between social justice and what works economically. I think Haiti has been a basket case since the 1830s or 40s. They were quite a superpower for about 20 years. Later, they declined very quickly.
Why did the Dominican Republic succeed? Well, they had larger units of production. It didn’t make for a good life for workers. But it was more productive. And this was the same island, producing sugar and coffee. And the most valuable real estate in the world in the 18th century was that island. Now, if you were a slave, it didn’t matter that there was value there because you weren’t benefiting. But what had created wealth was lost during the reorganization of that country.
It’s an extremely tragic history of people really committed, incredibly courageous, and willing to lay down their lives for the cause of social justice, and being betrayed time after time. They were betrayed as much by individuals inside Haiti as out.
But I want to make a distinction between Haitian society and culture. This is my reading, which I see as extremely civic and cooperative and helpful. Look at what happened in the earthquake [a few] years ago. People, whose houses did not fall down in the earthquake, went into the streets and invited total strangers to come into their house and eat their food. I mean where does this happen? Nowhere. It’s the corrupt leaders and the outsiders, I think, which have made Haiti such a sad case.
Aristide, The Power Behind the Throne
[Pictured, Rene] Préval was nominally the ruler. The story was that because of the complicated previous period where [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide was elected, deposed by military coup, living in exile in Washington D.C. on 7th Street at the Lansburgh.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. He’d been elected. When he returned to Haiti, under the Clinton intervention—we call it the “intervasion”— of ’94, he returned with only a little bit of time left in his elected period of office. So he said to the Americans, “I deserve my four years. I didn’t get them.”
And the Americans basically said, “Look, we have to get this thing going. Kindly step aside and you can become president again at a later time.” Why the United States had the arrogance to even be saying these things is part of the problem. But he was persuaded to step down and to allow in his friend, Préval, who was a baker by training. He had no background at all in administration or government or anything. He was a friend, a protégé of Aristide.
Everybody knew when I lived in Haiti, that Aristide unofficially ran the place, from Tabarre, his palace, his residence. Fabulously wealthy. How does a guy become fabulously wealthy as an exiled elected president of a poor country? Well, through corruption and through the drug trade.
But Préval was permitted to be President as long as he checked constantly with the real boss, the power behind the throne, which was Aristide. There were jokes about Préval asking permission to go to the bathroom. Sitting in the Presidential Palace and picking up the phone and anything of any importance had to be approved by Aristide. Préval was a placeholder. Unfortunately, it went to his head. He thought he was doing pretty well. He wasn’t. And he got himself reelected at a later time.
But in the year 2000, there really was an election. Finally. It was supposed to be in the fall of ’99. It finally did happen in the year 2000. It was a terrible mess. The first round of parliamentary elections went very well. It was like the election in South Africa. Enormous numbers of Haitians saw this as finally their opportunity to have a voice in how their country was run.
We have videotapes of the voting boxes being tossed into the bay. We have CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company] footage of Haitian government trucks coming and disrupting the tabulation. The votes, when tallied, were phony, phony, phony. And many millions, three or four million— out of a population of around eight or nine million at that time — got themselves to that voting place, sat or stood in the sun for hours waiting to vote, and were just fervently involved in this process.
They did not deserve to be betrayed, as they were when the ballots were just tossed, visibly, in front of television cameras, into the bay. People won, people lost. That first election had results. The losers, a dozen of them, were arrested and put in disgusting prison conditions. Their only crime was to have lost an election.
A Mockery of Democracy
Using my sort of bully pulpit as the spokesman, I said on the Haitian radio and TV that their detentions were unacceptable, and apparently that got some of them released. But they were held in three-by-four meter cells. There’d be 30 of them. They couldn’t all even sit at the same time; they had to take turns sitting.
These are candidates for election whose only crime had been to lose. The Préval people and the Aristide people, [their] bullies, rounded them up. They killed a dozen of them, by the way, during the campaign. I mean murdered them. They called them and said, “We’re going to kill you,” and then they did so. So this is murder of political candidates.
Those who survived, not all of them, but some of them, were put in these miserable jails. I felt strongly that the U.S. Embassy should do what it could to shame the Haitian government into releasing these people. And I guess we did that with some success. This is part of the reason that I was threatened later….
It’s a country that has a completely different reasoning process than any Western country. So I felt increasingly it was my task to stand back and to try to understand this very alien culture and to give it a long leash. Because I didn’t know any better. Many had come and gone before me and had failed to do anything of any value. What I tried to do during my two years was strengthen journalists in telling the truth. And they did so, very clearly risking their lives, and many hundreds of them joined in….
During the second election of the year 2000, when nobody voted because they had all been disillusioned by the phony process of the first round, nobody showed up for the second round, the government was lying with these ridiculous lies. “We had 63% participation,” when in fact, the journalists, having been strengthened I guess by me, were using cell phones to report nationally.
“Well, I don’t know, I’ve been sitting here since six in the morning and I’ve seen three people. And two of them are playing football. One of them voted.” And you had this marvelous proliferation of the truth, deeply embarrassing the government.
The government one day, through its spokesman, Yvon Neptune, in the morning said, “We have 63.3 per cent participation.” The same afternoon, he had to come clean. There was no choice. He said, “Well actually, we had five per cent.”
Even that was a gross exaggeration. There was, in fact, two or three per cent participation in that second election. And you know, shame, shame, shame on the government and on any supposedly friendly country that allowed them to get away with it. That would be the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, the EU, the OAS [Organization of American States], CARICOM (Caribbean Community), all of them are guilty of allowing that lousy election to be held up as an example. It was a mockery….
“I did not kill Jean Dominique”
When Jean Dominique, Haiti’s most famous journalist ever, was assassinated in April of 2000, this was a major, major event in Haiti’s history. I knew Jean Dominique a little bit. I didn’t know him terribly well. I met him a couple times. I had sparred with him on his radio show, Face à L’opinion.
Against everybody’s advice I accepted his invitation for a one-on-one interview on the air. Jean Dominique was a very pugnacious, difficult character. Very spiny. And he loved to pick fights. And I thought, “What the hell? If he tears me apart, I’ll deal with it. But let’s give it a try.” I went. We had a very wonderful hour live, shortly before he was killed.
And he started out quite hostile and quite accusing. The United States has interfered and this and that. I don’t know what I said. I have a transcript of it. By the end of the interview, we were best friends. I think at one time he said — live on the radio — “But you supported Papa Doc, who was a terrible vicious tyrant!”
I said, “Mea culpa.” I don’t know if that was U.S. policy, but I said it. And he loved me for saying that live on the radio. We became best friends.
Jean Dominique was Haiti’s most famous journalist ever. People compared him to Walter Cronkite fused with John Kennedy. He was a crotchety, contrary old fellow. Very resentful of the United States, even though he had enjoyed exile, and he had twice he had gone to live in the United States.
He interviewed me in March of 2000. And he was murdered on April 4th of that same year. There’s very little doubt that the Aristide regime arranged to have him murdered because he had vocally, publicly said, quote, “Titid”– that was the affectionate name for Aristide — “You know I love you, but you must remove the filth around you.” That’s a quote referring to the drug trade colleagues that Aristide had had.
And Dominique was murdered three days after that. Circumstantial, nothing ever proved, but it does appear that the regime wasn’t able to tolerate his public criticism. We’ll never know in the Western sense why Jean Dominique was killed or by whom, in April of 2000. But we know. We do know that he denounced Aristide publicly for his illegal activities, the enormous growth of the cocaine trade in Haiti supervised, permitted, and directed by Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his cronies.
Now, the Aristide regime thought that, “Well, it’s just a murder like any other. Murder is commonplace. We’ll just murder and solve the problem of his public criticism.” They never factored in that the international community would notice that Jean Dominique would be killed. But there was an enormous worldwide movement: “We demand justice!”
Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch and governments. They just caved in on them, saying, “We need to know who killed Jean.” Everybody knows. We don’t know who pulled the trigger, but we know who gave the order.
Well, they needed a scapegoat. And for a brief period, that was me. I’m not saying anything that’s classified here. There’s a police file, which I have, which names me as a suspect in the Jean Dominique assassination. I will say I did not kill Jean Dominique. I was not anywhere near his office that day. I was shocked and dismayed when the assassination took place.
The government, desperately trying to distract the world’s attention from themselves, had files on a half a dozen people, maybe a dozen people, including me. And I was questioned. I was threatened. The regime made an extremely amateurish and incompetent ploy trying to link me with someone who might have actually pulled the trigger….
There was an individual who might have been the one who pulled the trigger, I don’t know. I don’t want to mention his name because he’s escaped from the prison cell where he was tortured for four years. I saw him once during the period of that torture.
It was I guess the most ghastly thing in my life was to see this individual and how mangled he was from daily torture. They were trying to use him to get me as some actor in that whole crazy incident of the assassination. And they never succeeded. All they succeeded in doing was torturing this guy in a dungeon for four years, and then he escaped….
“You can’t torture people and then taste their flesh. And then we have nothing to say about it — it’s not acceptable.”
The U.S. government was asking, as it too often does, from a stance of caution and prudence. I would say, “Why? Are we afraid of a country of eight million impoverished people? What were we afraid of?”
Why couldn’t we have said, as I was permitted to say on one occasion but it was never true, individuals involved in political violence will have their visa to the United States irrevocably canceled. It was my idea. I asked for permission to say that. There were political killings. All these people had visas.
This isn’t an intervention in a sovereign country. We’re just saying, “It’s your country. By the way, you’re not coming to our country.” That was my proposal. The higher-ups permitted me to say that on the air. I didn’t know it at the time, but they had no intention of ever acting on that.
They were afraid. Of what? I don’t know! Afraid of Aristide? Afraid of Préval? Afraid of the incompetent gangsters running the country? I didn’t get it. I would say the whole thing was quite badly fumbled by two presidents, Clinton and Bush, by a series of assistant secretaries of Western Hemisphere Affairs who by their allies in CARICOM and OAS there was a delicate hand of, “We won’t intervene; we won’t trouble these people.”
I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t see it as invading the sovereignty of another country. It’s also a mistake to accept publicly the crimes committed, the torture, the assassinations.
In some cases cannibalism would occur where they would drag the victims alive in barbed wire across dusty roads and then burn their bodies and then taste them. Would this not have been an occasion for the U.S. government to say, “This is unacceptable”?
And by the way, the people who did this said, “Vive Aristide!” We were looking to Aristide to say something. Does he accept this type of behavior done in his name?” He never commented. He never accepted to say they shouldn’t have done that. I found that unacceptable….
The more significant thing that was going on was that you had at that embassy a deep division between everybody basically at the embassy witness to all this stuff, this horrible stuff, happening. And Washington policy, which was coming down on our heads from Washington dictated by people who didn’t know Shinola about Haiti, didn’t care about Haiti, but were taking orders from the highest source. Keep it quiet, just keep it quiet….
While we had different political parties and different types of personalities at the embassy, we all were one in feeling that Washington policy was deeply wrong. In one case—I want to mention this—you know the dissent channel cable system. I wrote one.
The local AID [Agency for International Development] director said to me, “Let’s write a dissent channel. We’re getting the wrong directions from Washington. We have to at least put down a marker and declare the behavior of this government unacceptable to us. You can’t torture people and then taste their flesh. And then we have nothing to say about it — it’s not acceptable.”
So I drafted a dissent channel cable. Dissent channel cables allow any officer to send any dissenting opinion under his/her own name, even if the chief of mission is opposed. It’s our whistle-blowing mechanism, though few want to blow up dust by using it.…I’m meek and humble — if I’m a troublemaker, I’m on the meek side. So I felt it would be a courtesy to the Chief of Mission, Leslie Alexander, a temporary person brought in from retirement, to show him this cable and say, “I’m going to send this. It’s my right. And the AID director and I are going to send it.”
After he read it, he said, “Why would this be dissent? I agree with all of this.” And then we did take that up at the next country team [meeting of the heads of the embassy’s sections and agencies] and what was drafted, as a dissent channel cable, was unanimously signed by everybody on the county team!
Now, that should be proof enough that those senior and mid-level and even junior officers in Haiti were very troubled by what was coming at us in Washington. So much so that they were unanimous in signing this cable. And this chief of mission, it went out under his name, instead of being dissent. It was a cable pointing out the unacceptable behavior of the Haitian government at that time and saying, “Why should we be silent when they’re killing people?”
“I now know that some of the people I dined with had murdered people with their bare hands”
The Haitian diaspora community in New York tended to be pro-Aristide. The Haitian diaspora in Miami and Montreal tended to be anti-Aristide. Now, did they align themselves there because of genuine belief and observation and following the news? Or were they vying for political influence? I don’t know. It’s a fascinating question. I think there was combination there.
But again, what struck me was that even diaspora communities in extreme disagreement, New York versus Miami versus Montreal, and there was some in Houston, when you put them together they became instantly collaborative. Isn’t that fascinating? It’s something about that culture….
And there was the Black Caucus. And while I really respect the existence of the Black Caucus and the individuals who were in it, we know that all but one in that group [was] receiving money from Aristide as registered lobbyists. These were senators, congressmen, men and women — this is really disgraceful. If they believed that Aristide was the cause of black liberation, then why did they take money from him? Big amounts of money to be his spokesman.
African Americans, a large part of the electorate, were being told what to think by their own Black Caucus. You can look this up on the Justice Department website. They were all, except one, getting money from a drug dealer to say these things.
This is pretty shameful. And it did become a racial matter. In the United States outside of the diaspora community, there were innuendos. If you don’t like Aristide, you are against black people.
I absolutely disagree. I think that’s rubbish. A black person betraying black people — is that any better than a white person betraying black people? Clearly, Aristide was doing that. Fifteen percent of the cocaine in this country went through Haiti. We know that he controlled and benefited from those networks. When he was taken into exile in February 29, 2004, there was so much cash in his house, it was so molded and there were so many mounds of it, that it wasn’t even usable. These were American dollars.
He was on the take. He was getting hundreds of millions of dollars in the cocaine trade. He was paying out money to the American Black Caucus to sing his praises in this country. There was a quid pro quo. [President Bill] Clinton had helped him get back to Haiti. Clinton also froze Haitian bank accounts in the United States. And the money from those accounts was given, in cash, on 7th Street at the Lansburgh, to Aristide. Hand to hand. He got an average of $900,000 a month when he was in exile….
Let me just say here, I voted for Clinton both times and I would not do otherwise. I think he was a great president. In this matter, he was very ill advised or he really blew it. He really blew an opportunity to improve that country by befriending a demon. I know it sounds overly emotional, but I think this man was a demon. What an irony, that we’re now in a regime in Haiti where you have Baby Doc and Aristide both living there as private citizens. How could this have happened? It’s really a very unique place.
I loved everything about Haiti, except its misfortunes. I didn’t love the misfortunes and the occasional dead body in the street. This was sort of shocking….
I now know that some of the people I dined with had murdered people with their bare hands. I didn’t know that when I dined with them. Everybody in that country is probably guilty of something (laughs). I mean some are more guilty than others. But to survive, to even be alive in that country, you can only do that through deceit.
“We were dismayed our country was failing to do the slightest things to make a desperate country a little better”
Haiti has a many centuries-long tradition that you’ll never know the name of a Haitian. He or she can become your best friend and you’ll never know that person’s legal name, you’ll never know where they live, and you’ll never meet their children or their wife or their girlfriend, because of their need to deceive. This is les marrons, the runaway slaves in the 17th, 18th century who lived in the hills, survived. They survived through deceit. And I admire them.
I absolutely have unqualified admiration. They would change their names, they would go into hiding. These are people who decided not to be slaves after 1804. And the only way to do that was to lie, steal, and that’s what they had to do.
I think Haitians — a vast majority, almost all Haitians — would never want to impose violence on another person. There were, however, those horrible exceptions. Aristide and his “Organisations Populaires,” these were the gangs, the thugs.
We saw the transactions taking place. It cost Aristide $8 per person per day for those gangs to run into the streets and to rip buildings apart and to kill people. They told us. They made $8 a day. When the job was over at 5:00, they no longer belonged to him. The next day, if he wanted them to do it again, he’d have to pay $8 more. That’s an objective fact. So they didn’t want to do this.
We had a wonderful Political Officer who interviewed them. She said, “Why are you doing this stuff?” Somehow she managed to get them to talk to her. And they said, “We don’t want to hurt anybody. But my kid has to go to school. If I don’t get my $8, my kid doesn’t go to school! What other choice do I have?” That’s a pretty tragic formula. These are people who did tremendous violence and damage, never wanting to do so….
There was a certain stability after the 1994 Clinton “intervasion.” I’m sure Clinton would not be offended by that term. There was a small unit of American military in Port-au- Prince. They stayed at the airport, they never mingled in the constabulary. They never did any police work or any pacifying of civil unrest. They were just there. The fact of having 200 uniformed American military had an enormously tranquilizing effect. Haitians felt safe. And there was something irrational about this.
And it was, you could say, a needless expense on the part of a well-intentioned DoD [Department of Defense]. But there was a psychological benefit in a very desperate country there were moments of confidence and peace and tranquility just because there were some soldiers there. They didn’t know what the mission was, but they saw these guys in their green uniforms.
One day, they weren’t there. I think it was December of 1999, when a certain Secretary of Defense pulled them out. He never told the Ambassador, he never told the State Department, he just pulled him out. I was there that day and I remember the desperation of everybody, the government, the people opposed to the government, the U.S. embassy first and foremost, because we didn’t have a clue this was going to happen. Those 200 soldiers were just removed!
This is an enormous public relations statement. But nothing was ever said about it. This was the type of nonsense Washington was giving us, making our jobs not only impossible to do, but as we became more and more fond of Haiti and Haitians, it became very, very personal for all of us.
I think we were personally dismayed that our country was failing to do just the slightest little things to make a smaller, desperate little country a little bit better. I’m afraid we failed to do that….