Chronicle of a Coup
by Steven Dudley
The Progressive magazine,
In Haiti, as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's
government was falling, you got the feeling that everyone thought
he could be president.
Take Eddy Joseph, a small-town schoolteacher
with thick cheeks and a wide smile. Joseph's only political experience
was his run for mayor in the small town of St. Marc just a few
years ago. He lost. But in the revolt that swept through the country
a few days earlier and eventually forced Aristide from power,
Joseph saw an opportunity. And in a man with a microphone, Joseph
saw a forum.
"Are you an international journalist?"
he poked me in the chest as I walked the debris-ridden streets
of the port city of Gonaives, the place where Haiti's rebellion
got its spark. After I answered in the affirmative, Joseph straightened
his sharp red tie, brushed the dust from his dark blue suit and
tricolored sash, and centered his black sailor's cap.
"It's a pleasure for me to be here,
in front of the international world to talk about myself and to
say what do I think about the problem of Haiti," he began,
speaking forcefully into the microphone.
Steven Dudley is a Miami-based freelance
reporter and a contributor to The Progressive. He has reported
from Latin America and the Caribbean for years and has recently
published a book on Colombia entitled "Walking Ghosts."
"Well, as you can see here, in this
poster, my name is Eddy Joseph," he continued, before slipping
into third person. "Eddy Joseph is a patriot, clean and competent,
and he says that before uprooting the rotten post, we have to
prepare the new post."
Aristide is gone from Haiti now, if not
done. After being forced out by the United States, the former
Haitian president made several dramatic calls to the press saying
he'd been abducted by U.S. Marines. This may have been true. The
Marines took over Haiti twice in the last century, once for about
But what was also true was that Aristide
wasn't a very good democrat. Long before the United States dragged
him to the airplane on February 29 and packed him to the Central
African Republic, Aristide had lost his luster.
He began his career as a popular priest
and was Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1990.
His bio is impressive: An orphan who became a priest prodigy (in
addition to Creole, he speaks French, German, English, and Spanish),
he developed into a stirring liberation theologian who rose to
the presidency of this small Caribbean country. Along the way,
he fought the Duvalier family dictatorship and several military
juntas, he convinced the most powerful nation in the world to
send 23,000 troops to restore him to power after being ousted
in a military coup, and he seduced the foreign media to write
his fairy tale, and he persuaded the international community of
donors to give money in large bundles. Aristide was a ray of hope
for a country that had ceased to function: 90 percent of the land
is deforested; health conditions are some of the worst in the
world; corruption is endemic.
But hope quickly gave way to despair.
By many accounts, Aristide had rigged legislative elections in
2000; he'd armed his supporters with automatic weapons and used
them to intimidate and assassinate his opponents; he'd constructed
a system of patronage that included his wife (she became the owner
of the second largest cellular phone company in the country).
Meanwhile, he'd bought shares of several media companies for himself
and sent his thugs to attack the media outlets that were against
There are, of course, defenders of Aristide,
who note he was elected president of Haiti by an overwhelming
majority. They might add that he built many schools and public
health facilities, and that he was doing his best to rein in dark
forces beyond his control: corrupt officials, drug traffickers,
an intransigent business elite. To his supporters, Aristide is
a victim, not a victimizer.
He may be somewhere in between.
Just two weeks before his ouster, I interviewed
the beleaguered president in the National Palace. "For Europe,
it took years and years before having solid democratic institutions,"
he told me. "It wasn't in weeks or months they created their
democratic system. In Haiti, well, it's relatively new, a very
short period of time," he said. "Unfortunately, what
we had is an economic embargo since 2000 that didn't help, making
life more difficult for the poor."
The U.S. government imposed the embargo,
and Bush advisers, who loathed Aristide, used the flawed legislative
elections as an excuse to freeze international aid. Aristide regularly
bashed the United States, its foreign policy, its economic model,
and its President. The embargo, meanwhile, sunk the government
and the economy, and many Haitians started to lose patience.
When a band of former Aristide loyalists
known as the Cannibal Army overran the Gonaives police station
on February 5, it was the beginning of the end for Aristide. Townspeople
there told me that the police had regularly abused suspected criminals
and Aristide's political opponents, and they greeted the torching
of the police station with glee. When Aristide sent a special
unit to retake the town the next day, locals helped execute the
ambush that left several more policemen dead, including one who
was buried under a huge boulder. Amazingly, that was the last
time the police would ever fight for Aristide as their president.
When I visited Gonaives. just a week after
the popular takeover, it was chaos. Stores were shut. Looters
were tearing apart the concrete prison walls using a stolen backhoe.
The streets were littered with barricades of rocks, rusty old
appliances, burned out cars, even a speedboat. Former Aristide
militia members who'd taken over had checkpoints where they drank
beer and clumsily carried automatic weapons they'd confiscated
from the police station. Teenagers, many of them carrying guns
taller than they were, sped up and down the debris-ridden streets
in stolen police cars. Each of these rebels wore a souvenir from
the battle with the police: a kneepad, a gas mask, a bulletproof
vest. And each one seemed caught up in his own drunken revolution.
In the middle of it all was another would-be
Haitian president. Butteur Metayer, a pugnacious thirty-three-year-old,
had spent most of the second half of his life at a Ford auto factory
in Lansing, Michigan. He'd returned to Haiti because Aristide's
men had allegedly shot his brother in the eyes and left his body
on the side of the road. Since the revolt began, Metayer and his
boys from the Cannibal Army had changed their name to the Gonaives
Revolutionary Front, but they were almost too drunk to explain
what they were fighting for. "I just came to Haiti to protect
my brother. Now I'm a revolutionary man," Metayer said, warily
scanning his men. "I'm the president of the province."
Metayer didn't quite have the style of
the sash-laden Eddy Joseph, but he had the firepower. He wore
shorts and a blue shirt with a small Nike symbol emblazoned on
his chest. He hid his eyes behind a pair of dark sunglasses with
gold-plated rims. During our conversation, he sat in a wilted
metal chair and had a machete and a bottle of Barbancourt rum
within reach at all times. Several handlers slouched on some old,
worn couches, with M- 1 carbines and Uzi submachine guns Iying
across their laps. Those who entered Metayer's office gave him
an awkward salute, while their boss took occasional swigs between
questions. "I'm looking for justice for my brother,"
Metayer repeated to me. "[Aristide] gives me the guns. Now
the guns backfired on him."
When we'd finished talking, the accidental
guerrilla leader put on a cowboy hat, grabbed the bottle of rum
and his machete, and hit the streets. A crowd of about forty supporters
cheered and started singing anti-Aristide songs: "Aristide:
If we knew you were such a bad guy, we'd never have voted for
you, you stabbed us in our backs."
With the midday sun shining on his forehead,
Metayer took hold of a World War II-era M-1 carbine and pointed
it in the sky. When it didn't fire, one of his handlers, a graying
man with a fuzzy beard dressed in full camouflage, loaded it for
him. The second try sent a shot into the distance, which was followed
by more cheers and song: "Whether you want to or not, you
have to go," the crowd screamed to a distant Aristide.
Metayer then led a march around town.
Several armed men jogged in front of their leader and the throngs
that followed him. Raw sewage floated in street-side gutters,
a reminder that poverty is never far away in this, the poorest
country in the hemisphere. Throughout, Metayer's men cajoled neighborhood
kids to join them. At various junctures in the march, the group
stopped, argued with one another over which street to take, or
gathered around a fire to smash a soda bottle into the ground
in a pseudo-voodoo ritual designed to cleanse the earth of Aristide.
But behind the bravado and the booze in
Gonaives, there was a more serious revolution, or perhaps counterrevolution,
brewing. In a small one-story concrete villa along a Gonaives
side street, I found several men who claimed to be ex-military
personnel talking strategy. Like Metayer, their fight was personal.
They wanted to reconstitute the military that Aristide had disbanded
when he returned to power with U.S. help in 1994.
Inside the villa, a few stern men in sharp
fatigues led me into a dark room. The only light came from the
afternoon sun peeking into a doorway. A few soldiers lounged on
some mattresses laid across the tile floor. A young rebel with
a long shotgun stared menacingly at me. After a couple minutes,
a stout figure in camouflage slowly entered the door and introduced
himself as Guy Philippe. "I have 210 men, ready to fight,
ready to die for what they believe," Philippe told me in
English with a nearly flawless accent he'd picked up during the
two years he'd spent living in the United States.
Philippe is a former police captain who
fled Haiti in 2000, when he was tied to a coup plot. His wife
is from Wisconsin. The two met in Ecuador while she was in a study-abroad
program and he was training for the Haitian army. When Aristide
dissolved the army in 1994, Philippe joined the newly formed police
force. He had received some training from the U.S. Secret Service,
and he showed me a Secret Service badge. It was the first of several
curious U.S. connections that led many Haitians to immediately
assume that Philippe's whole operation was a CIA-led coup that
used the Dominican Republic as its launching point.
Philippe had lived in Santo Domingo since
fleeing Haiti. Last year, Dominican authorities arrested him for
his alleged involvement in a 2001 coup attempt. Several people
died during that attack on Haiti's National Palace. Despite Haitian
pleas to send him to Port-au-Prince to face trial, the Dominicans
released Philippe after just a week citing lack of evidence. Several
other rebels also found safe harbor in Santo Domingo. Philippe's
best friend and second in command of the rebels, Gilbert Dragon,
lived there for a time, as did the rebels' strongman, Louis Jodel
Given his past, Philippe's appearance
as rebel commander caused a stir in Haiti, while Chamblain's created
a shiver. Chamblain was part of FRAPH, which, during its brief
existence, stood for the Front for the Advancement of Haitian
People. Chamblain said that FRAPH was a political organization.
But human rights groups say that the CIA created FRAPH to be the
military's death squad between 1991 and 1994, during which time
FRAPH members systematically raped and killed their way through
thousands of Aristide loyalists.
"The army was demobilized. Now the
army has been remobilized and is a constitutional army,"
Chamblain told me at an airfield in the northern city of Cap-Haitien
where the rebels had set up camp for a while. "Aristide has
two choices: prison or execution by firing squad."
Like so many others, Chamblain's fight
with Aristide was also personal. In the violence that followed
the military coup in 1991, Chamblain said that a pro-Aristide
militia clubbed his seven-months pregnant wife to death in their
The rebels had but 300 soldiers, most
of them former Haitian military personnel who looked as old as
their M-1 carbines they carted for the news cameras. In their
month-long march toward Port-au-Prince, they did not fight a single
battle. The police simply changed out of their uniforms, grabbed
bottles of rum, and headed for the hills. The retreats were as
much a measure of the rebels' reputations as they were a barometer
of just how little support Aristide had left.
As the rebels closed in on Port-au-Prince,
the pressure mounted for Aristide to leave. And the president
reacted badly. During one radio address, he called for his militias
to take to the streets, which they did, setting up burning barricades
of tires and broken bottles. He also called the international
press "terrorists." In the days before he resigned,
Aristide's militias became increasingly aggressive-torching gas
stations, looting stores, stealing cars, and assaulting journalists.
Militia members struck two Mexican television journalists with
machetes. Their flak jackets deflected the blows; the journalists
pulled out the next day.
On the surface, the United States and
former Aristide allies Canada and France were playing a diplomatic
game. They, along with several Caribbean nations, tried to broker
a deal between opposition political forces in Port-auPrince and
Aristide. According to the deal, which Aristide agreed to, the
two sides would work together to reconstitute the government.
But the opposition simply refused to sign on, instead calling
for Aristide to resign.
Meanwhile, the situation in Port-au-Prince
worsened, the rebels got closer, and Colin Powell and the White
House issued strong hints that Aristide should step down. And
when he didn't, the United States played hardball, according to
several diplomatic sources who were close to the talks. Aside
from saying that Washington could not safeguard him, Bush officials
allegedly used a drug dealer's testimony as leverage to get Aristide
to resign. "You have to look at the declarations of Ketant
to understand a lot of things," one high-level European diplomat
said of the rapidly changing diplomatic position with Haiti. "It
was a way to help the negotiation."
Ketant is Beaudoin "Jacques"
Ketant, who, working from Haiti, sent hundreds of tons of Colombian
cocaine to the United States before Aristide handed him over to
U.S. authorities last year. Just four days before Aristide was
ushered to the Central African Republic, Ketant told a Miami courtroom
during his sentencing that Aristide was a "drug lord."
My sources told me that the United States
used this information to help squeeze Aristide from office. Aristide
hasn't commented on the drug allegation, but his lawyer has repeatedly
said that Ketant is just trying to save himself. Indeed, Ketant
is cooperating with U.S. authorities in an attempt to lower his
Today, Haiti has a new prime minister,
Gerard Latortue, hand-picked by the Bush Administration. There
is a sinking feeling that the new government is much like those
of the pre-Aristide era, an era in which the country was plundered
into oblivion by the wealthy elite and corrupt military under
the watchful eye of Washington. Shortly after assuming power,
Latortue lauded the thugs who worked with Philippe and Chamblain.
Philippe still thinks of himself as nothing less than president.
For a few days after Aristide left, he paraded around town with
his rebel cohorts, then declared himself the head of the newly
reconstituted military. Aristide, meanwhile, is seeking asylum.
And the Marines are back in Haiti.