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The Overthrow of Haiti’s Aristide

Haiti has long been plagued by coups d’état and regime changes, leading to long-time political instability and weak governance. In this volatile political field, it was easy for a Haitian leader to assume dictatorial powers, as was the case with President François Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc.”

After becoming the President of Haiti in 1957, he soon took on the title of “President for Life” and established a repressive and authoritarian government. His regime was supported by the Tonton Macoute, a paramilitary force, which also served to counter the considerable power of the Haitian military. With the passing of Duvalier in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc,” assumed the role of President of Haiti. This in essence established a dynastic dictatorship that would last until he was overthrown from a popular uprising in 1986.

Following a series of failed elections and military coups, the first democratic election in Haitian history was held between December 16, 1990 and January 20, 1991. Winning with a clear majority was the Salesian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With representatives from both the United Nations and the Organization of American States monitoring the election, it was declared free and fair. However, within eight months of being sworn into office, President Aristide was deposed in yet another military coup on September 29, 1991; his life was spared only due to the intervention of U.S., French, and Venezuelan diplomats.

Michael Norton, who spent two decades in Haiti as a reporter for the Associated Press, discusses the circumstances around Aristide’s victory in 1991. He was interviewed by Daniel Whitman beginning in September 2007. Leslie M. Alexander recounts the chaos that occurred in Haiti after the coup when he was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Port-au-Prince. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed him beginning in October 2005.

To read more about U.S. reaction to the coup ousting Aristide, the departure of Baby Doc Duvalier from Haiti,  and the brutality of Aristide’s regime, please follow the links.


“It’s the other side of the looking glass”

Michael Norton, Radio News Reporter, Haiti, 1986-2003

NORTON: The myth of Aristide’s popularity is worth discussing. Aristide was swept into power in a 1991 landslide. Unfortunately we don’t know how many people voted… (Norton and wife are seen at left.)

The American political establishment was completely blind, deaf, dumb, blind, lame, quadriplegic, lobotomized in 1991. They foresaw the victory of Marc Bazin (seen left), former World Bank project officer, Mr. Clean, etc. He was really presentable.

He was a priest – Aristide was not a parish priest – he was a priest, he was a Salesian father who gave these fantastic sermons – participative sermons. He was absolutely spellbinding, with his gifted use of language.

Unfortunately the United States put their money on Bazin the way they put their money on the army in 1987, not foreseeing for one moment that, hey, with the fall of Duvalier, you opened the ports, you opened the floodgates. And you not only opened the doors of prosperity, relative prosperity, but of hope, of a heretofore obstructed future.

Hope in a country that is oppressed means freedom. A country of slaves that has been humiliated. You are opening Pandora’s box. You don’t want Pandora’s box opened.? Well, you don’t get rid of Duvalier, or do something else. I don’t know.

But if you do open Pandora’s box, judge whether or not you can co-opt whoever comes out. What was sad, tragic, pathetic was that it had been and would have been possible to co-opt those fugitives from despair.

There was nothing socialist, let alone communist, in the movement for Haitian democracy. Nothing was more foreign to it. The Soviet Union was already going to collapse. What was this fear?

And so a normal transition from a dictator to a dictatorial army formed, by the way, trained by the United States in the 19 years of its occupation on the model of the Marine Corps. These are the people that are going to provide the transition to democracy? The Marines?

Anyway, that was the American policy, of course. Warned as they were by some journalists that the coup d’état reaction would occur in 1987, they didn’t listen. Or perhaps they didn’t care. Or perhaps they didn’t know. Or perhaps they wanted it. I’m talking about the Americans. In 1991, it was a different story.

Aristide was a different kettle of fish, in my opinion. Also co-optable, but you had to understand him. You had to want to understand him. Is it important to understand if you formulate policy? They didn’t understand. So, Marc Bazin was going to win hands down.

I remember Jimmy Carter (seen with Aristide at right) coming down and he was worried because Aristide, after all, was a rabble rouser. Now, Jimmy Carter believed, I believe, that Aristide was losing, but that he had enough supporters to cause a great deal of damage to the country. And in his own peanut farmer way, he went and talked to Aristide.

This was marvelous. This set up a belief that never disappeared. Because Aristide interpreted Jimmy Carter’s plea to him that he be peaceful. That when he loses he not unleash the hordes. It was a plea. And Aristide, of course, since every word is in a double language, took it as a threat.

Nobody understands anybody. I believe that Jimmy Carter spoke unequivocally. I believe it was a plea. He had been misinformed. Aristide won. I will never forget that. Thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people – poor, middle class, wealthy, black, not so-black, mulatto – everybody, almost everybody, voted for Aristide in 1991 and it was clear why.

Why wasn’t it clear why to the Americans? You have to ask them, but I have two or three ideas. Let’s take the…without ascribing evil intentions. The U.S. comes into a weird country. It’s the other side of the looking glass. The sentence does come before the trial. I mean, off goes their head. It really is that way. Who’s going to tell you the truth about such a country?

“How do you support a person who was democratically elected, but doesn’t rule as a democrat?”

Leslie M. Alexander, Deputy Chief of Mission, Port-au-Prince, 1991-1993

ALEXANDER: I arrived in August and one month later there was the coup against the then-president, President Jean Bertrand Aristide. All hell broke loose. It’s not that I had been at post for several months, was prepared to deal with this. Fortunately, because of the job that I came from, I had the background and the knowledge to be able to deal with what was going to be a very, very, very tough tour.

At the end of September, the evening of the 30th, 29th-30th, the military decided that Aristide had to go. This was based on months and months and months of what the rank and file, what they called the petit soldat (little soldier) perceived as Aristide eroding their privileges, their position in society and other provocations, real and imagined. In any event, he had to go.

So with the collusion of some NCOs (noncommissioned officers) and relatively junior officers they decided that they needed a change of leadership, so they threw him out of office. There was no evidence at the time; certainly we in the embassy had nothing to warn us that this was in the works.

We knew that there was a lot of unhappiness but not just in the military. The bourgeois segments of society, the middle class, the upper class certainly were unhappy with Aristide, not so much because he had eroded their privileges; in point of fact of he hadn’t. I was always confused by this.

His supporters in the congress and elsewhere said that this was a coup instigated by the wealthy, the morally repugnant elite, the MREs as they called them, against Aristide because he was trying to help the poor.

That was the most nonsensical allegation because, number one, he didn’t help the poor, but at the same time he didn’t really do anything to change the privileged position of the elites. He was an incompetent, as simple as that. He didn’t do anything…

[Aristide was strange.] He gave provocative speeches. He encouraged horrendous deeds, the worst of which was “Pere Lebrun”; to make a long story short, without getting into too much Haitian history, this was “neck lacing.”  It was a buzzword for putting a tire around someone’s neck and setting it on fire. It was a horrible way to kill people, but it was done on more than one occasion.

Aristide (seen right) would give speeches in Creole, and those of us who understood Creole would hear them and we’d say, “I can’t believe the man has just said what he said.” Basically he would say it’s okay to go out and burn people. If you find that people are not with the program, if they’re not with the people, then you know what to do. You have the instrument; you have the tool that you need to see the record straight, do the right thing.

This was alarming to a lot of people, and it was done on more than one occasion. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was when a very prominent politician – well known, widely admired, a moderate, was a victim of this: Pere Lebrun. Even the military stood up and said, “If Aristide is going to go after a guy like this he’ll go after anybody. He’s putting us on notice that we might be next.”

I think the fear was exaggerated. I have no doubts that had Aristide been able to get rid of the military, he would have done it in a flash, but there was little that I could see; this is just that he was in a position to do that.

After months and months and months of provocations, of inflammatory speeches, no puns intended, of actions that suggested that he was moving in an anti-democratic direction, taking on or using the Duvalier’s playbook, creating his own personal gang of thugs, his political opposition, the military and the elites, began to become increasingly concerned about where this was going to end up if unchecked.

Washington was becoming increasingly concerned, because we found that his voice was not one of moderation, and certain things were going on in the shadows that made us very uncomfortable. I think one of the more egregious cases involved the murder of two or three young men, one of whom had a girlfriend who was the object of the desires of one of Aristide’s killers.

These guys were found dead, I can’t remember now whether there were two or three of them; it was pretty clear from the information that we gathered that they had been bumped off by some police guy who was closely in line to Aristide’s people. He had killed these kids essentially because he wanted the girlfriend.

The ambassador spoke with President Aristide two or three or four times, said, “Listen, you’ve talked about justice. This is a horrible case and we need to get to the bottom of this, because it’s really gotten a lot of attention and people are suggesting that if boys like this, decent boys, can be killed under very funny circumstances then anybody can be killed.” Aristide promised he would look into it and do something about it; it was never done.

Come the end of September, the military is feeling very, very threatened by Aristide, and they decide that it’s time for him to go. So at the end of September they run him out of the palace and take over the country and the generals, the senior military, find themselves in a rather tenuous position.

They have a revolt on their hands, among their own troops who are saying the president has to go. The head of the army, ironically, was the man who headed up all the security for the election that Aristide won and made it possible for Aristide to become president. Raoul Cedras, who was later vilified and accused of being the ringleader in this whole coup thing – and there is absolutely no evidence that we had to suggest that that was true – woke up much as we did at 11:30, 12:00 at night when it became clear that this coup was well underway, to be told “the army’s gone berserk and they’ve kicked out the president and they’ve taken over.”

So, he gets dragged into this thing and we have this crisis on our hands because Haiti’s first democratically-elected president in anyone’s memory has just been run out of office and is in exile.

Aristide eventually winds up in Washington, where he starts stirring up the Congressional Black Caucus. He convinces them that this is a black thing; that this is the black masses against the light-skinned elites of Haiti, which again is absolutely nonsense, but it was something that Aristide, being the clever man that he was, understood what buttons to push in the Black Congressional Caucus, and he used this race thing.

We in the embassy were bemused by this, because anyone who knows Haiti, Haitians and Creole, their language, when we got black congressmen coming down to the country, Haitians, well, the Haitian word for them was “blanche,” which means, in French, “white,” which means in Haitian Creole “foreigner.” Foreigners were blanche. You could be Japanese, you could be Asian, you could be black, but if you a foreigner you were a blanche, you were a white.

Of course, they didn’t understand this; they had ways of saying he is a Black white person or an Asian white person. The point I’m trying to make is that Haitians’ view of race and color is very different than an African American’s view of race and color and it goes back to the history of Haiti.

Haiti didn’t have the generations of slavery that we had in the U.S.; Haitians never developed this self-loathing. Haitians never developed this attitude that whites are better than me, and you might not admit such a thing but this deep ingrained belief in the superiority of Europeans or white people.

The reason why Haitians didn’t have that was because they kicked them all out. They killed them and threw them out very early on in the game. So you didn’t have this slave generation, slave mentality that was bred into people. Slavery didn’t exist long enough in Haiti for that to happen.

Moreover, what army was it that they beat? They beat Napoleon’s army. That was the best army in the world at the time. This was like the Vietnamese beating the U.S.

The Haitians, quite to the contrary, didn’t see white people as being superior. On occasion they saw them as being inferior. Hey, we kicked your butts, but at best they saw them as just other people with a different skin color, no more, no less. That’s the end of it.

Aristide, of course, knew this. He had certain fixations about the way he looked. There is a correlation in Haiti, often, that the lighter skinned you are the more likely you are to be higher up on the totem pole. That, again, wasn’t an absolute; and all you had to do was look at Duvalier and all of his cronies to see that wasn’t the case, it wasn’t etched in stone.

Aristide, in exile in Washington, used his race card with the Congressional Black Caucus to convince them to convince the administration that he had been wronged and we had to do something about it. There was a change in administration: President Bush Senior left office, President Clinton (seen at left with Aristide) took over and this desire of the Black Caucus to support Aristide suddenly had resonance in the White House, while under Bush Senior it didn’t.

We in the embassy, in the meantime, were caught in this nasty Washington game of “what do we do?” On the one hand everything we knew about Aristide, from every source – from intelligence we gathered, from conversations, from his own speeches – indicated that he was not a good president and that his policies were not going to be beneficial to us. It wasn’t in our national interest to have this man as the president of Haiti.

Yet on the other hand we had others, and I think legitimately so, saying, be that as it may, this man was democratically elected and we have to support the principle of democracy. This was our policy dilemma and I’m sure Haiti was not the first, nor the last country where we had this problem. How do you support a person who was democratically elected, but doesn’t rule as a democrat? Who is the antithesis of the democratic leader?

While Washington was debating this, we in the embassy were sort of stuck trying to figure out what do we do? We had thousands of boat people who seized the opportunity to take to the seas screaming, “We’re political refugees; you’ve got to take us in…”

“It was called the Haitian nuclear bomb expressly to get Washington’s attention”

I think that the boat exodus was the catalyst for the White House’s eventual decision to take on Haiti as a major foreign policy issue. It has been suggested, I have no evidence to support this other than comments that were made by people, as I never saw any intel that actually supported the notion that Aristide himself provoked the boat people exodus.

In fact, it was called the Haitian nuclear bomb expressly to get Washington’s attention and force Washington’s hand, the argument being that this looks bad for you, you’ve got all these Haitians, these very visibly Black people washing up on these white beaches on Florida being filmed on CNN.

The contrast was stark. There they are, being rounded up and told they have to go back to a supposedly murderous military regime, while at the same time you have these fair skinned Cubans washing up on their rafts and they’re welcomed and embraced and oh, they can stay but these poor black Haitians can’t.

Well, they can’t because they’re black and you’re racists and the whole nine yards. Aristide and his supporters used that imagery very well, and again, I don’t blame them. I would have done the same thing. You know, you play the cards that you’ve been dealt, you use the weapons at hand and the boat people were the perfect tool for Aristide to garner the kind of support that he needed to return to Haiti.

Again, my life was made miserable. I was dealing with this issue at the same time that we were in evacuation status. We had a skeletal staff…

We couldn’t support the size staff we had before, because the first thing that the Bush administration did, around November of 1991, was to impose an economic embargo on Haiti. Economic embargos usually don’t work, but they can have ferocious impacts, especially in a country as poor as Haiti. We were under an economic embargo.

For the embassy what that was meant was that we no longer had supermarkets that could feed our staffs, where we could go and buy food and things of that sort. There were certain everyday realities that we had to deal with and couldn’t, so we had to cut down the staff.

There was also the fear of violence. Again, you had a military regime in power and they killed people and we were concerned that if they got upset with us they could turn their guns on us. So, for a host of reasons, we were in evacuation status, principally because we couldn’t support the families and the staff that we had and also because of fears for their security.

One of the consequences of being under this embargo was that we were not allowed to make payments to the de facto government for anything ,which also made things difficult because there was the state electricity monopoly and a state telephone monopoly.

If you wanted to have phone service, if you wanted to have electricity, you had to deal with the government, because they owned these services. I was sitting in my office one day and I get a phone call from someone in the Treasury Department, the head of the embargo office, who says to me, basically, that I had to stop paying the bills, the light bills, since I was supposedly directing this.

I said, “Well, that’s fine and dandy but what do I do? If we don’t pay them we’re not going to have electricity. If we have no electricity we don’t have an embassy.”

He says, “Well I don’t care about that. Executive order whatever-it was says that Haiti’s under embargo, so you have to stop paying these bills under penalty of so and so.”

Well I blew up and I said, “is this a joke or are you serious?”

He says, “Do you think this is a joke? Do you think this is amusing? You’re violating the law.”

I said, “Well I don’t know whether it’s amusing, I think it’s absolutely insane, because the law also requires statutorily for me to provide for the protection and welfare of U.S. citizens in this country of whom there are several thousand and I can’t do that if I don’t have electricity. So we have a dilemma.”

And he says to me, “No, I don’t have any dilemma. You have a dilemma. I’m telling you that you are going to” – I can’t remember what I was threatened with – “if you continue.”

So I said, “fine, fine, fine,” and hung up the phone and immediately called the principle desk, Bob Gelbard, in Western Hemisphere Affairs and I said, “Bob, I’ve got this problem, I’ve got this lunatic at Treasury from the embargo office” or something, I can’t remember what it was called, “telling me that I can’t pay the light bill and the phone bill. If I can’t do that; I’m not going to have the services, which means you’re not going to be able to call me up 40 times a day as you do with all of your bizarre requests and instructions.”

He said, “Don’t worry about it; we’ll take care of it.”

A day goes by, two days, a week, a month; the guy calls me again from Treasury, all upset. I’m still paying these bills, he has evidence to suggest stuff and they’re going to have to take some kind of drastic dramatic action.

So I call Gelbard again. I said, “Hey, I thought you guys took care of.”

“Well, it’s not as simple as we thought.”

And I said, “come on, don’t do this to me.”

I said, “this is the kind of thing that you read about in novels, you see in movies, but we’ve got thousands of boat people that you want to repatriate and I’ve got officers running all over the country following every single one of the repatriated boat people to ensure that they’re not being killed, tortured, abused or anything else as they’re alleging they are and I’ve got my own government threatening me with legal action, because I’m trying to carry out the government’s business. I don’t want to deal with this. This is a Washington problem, you deal with it.”

They never solved it. State was never able to get Treasury to back off on this notion. I mean, we continued to do what we did, but I suppose if someone really wanted to do something bad to me, they could have. This is the kind of insanity that we were dealing with.

Even more insane was the number of human rights organizations, media, Aristide people, boat people advocates who were screaming and yelling that people were being slaughtered by the thousands in Haiti and how could we send back the boat people to certain peril? The fact was people weren’t being slaughtered by the thousands.

The best we could figure is 300-350 people were killed during the coup itself. That’s a lot of people; I’m not going to argue that, particularly if it’s one of your loved ones, but after that things settled down. That doesn’t mean that this was paradise on earth, but the military was not out slaughtering thousands of Haitians.

For one thing, there were 7,000 soldiers in the entire Haitian army in a country of seven million with little or no gas, little or no ammunition. They just weren’t out killing people; there was no reason for it, just no requirement for it.

We were reading these tales and being told that thousands of people are being massacred, so we had people running all over the country to the sites of these supposed massacres asking the locals “can you please take me to your massacre?”

And they would respond, “What massacre do you want? There was a massacre, as they say, in 1803, when we killed 200 French people and cut off their heads.”

“No, no not that massacre. The massacre from the petit soldat that happened last week” and everyone would start laughing.

Anyway, after two or three or four months of chasing down these so-called massacres, we said, “listen, this is BS (bullshit). There are no massacres.” Aristide’s people insisting that the embassy’s in collusion with the military and they’re blind and they’re stupid.

We said, “listen, send anyone you want. We’ll go there together.”

Jesse Jackson came down. We went with Jesse to the site of a so-called massacre so he could see there was no massacre. We couldn’t find a massacre. There was a suggestion that they covered up the evidence really well, but again, you can’t hide thousands of bodies.

The point is, we were being challenged by our own people. “You sure there’s no massacre?”

“Well, I can’t state categorically. I can’t prove a negative, but I can tell you if there is one there’s absolutely no evidence that there has been one, so what do you want us to do?”

So we were going through all this madness, thousands of boat people, who we’ve got to send back and have to ensure that they’re safe. How do I that? I have an evacuated embassy, I have no police force. If some guy comes from the countryside somewhere and goes back because he’s been repatriated, I can’t post a bodyguard.

Well, you figure it out. These were the kinds of instructions I was getting.