Who Removed Aristide?
by Paul Farmer
London Review Bookshop, April
On the night of 28 February, the Haitian
president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced from power. He claimed
he'd been kidnapped and didn't know where he was being taken until,
at the end of a 20-hour flight, he was told that he and his wife
would be landing 'in a French military base in the middle of Africa'.
He found himself in the Central African Republic.
An understanding of the current crisis
requires a sense of Haiti's history. In the 18th century it became
France's most valuable colonial possession, and one of the most
brutally efficient slave colonies there has ever been. Santo Domingo,
as it was then called, was the leading port of call for slave
ships: on the eve of the French Revolution, it was supplying two-thirds
of all of Europe's tropical produce. A third of new arrivals died
within a few years.
Haitians are still living with the legacy
of the slave trade and of the revolt that finally removed the
French. The revolt began in 1791, and more than a decade of war
followed; France's largest expeditionary force, led by General
Leclerc, Napoleon's brother-in-law, was sent to put down the rebellion.
As the French operation flagged, the slave general, Toussaint
l'Ouverture, was invited to a parley. He was kidnapped and taken
away to a prison in the Jura. In Avengers of the New World: The
Story of the Haitian Revolution,* Laurent Dubois tells Toussaint's
story in a manner that reminds us of its similarities to the current
'Toussaint must not be free,' Leclerc
wrote to the colonial minister in Paris at the time, 'and should
be imprisoned in the interior of the Republic. May he never see
Saint-Domingue again.' 'You cannot hold Toussaint far enough from
the ocean or put him in a prison that is too strong,' Leclerc
reiterated a month later. He seemed to fear that the deported
man might suddenly reappear. His very presence in the colony,
he warned, would once again set it alight.
Toussaint died of exposure and tuberculosis
in 1803. Every Haitian schoolchild knows his last words by heart:
'In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the
trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring up again by
the roots for they are numerous and deep.'
In November 1803 the former slaves won
what proved to be the war's final battle, and on 1 January 1804
declared the independent republic of Haiti. It was Latin America's
first independent country and the only nation ever born of a slave
revolt. The Haitian Revolution, Dubois writes, was 'a dramatic
challenge to the world as it then was. Slavery was at the heart
of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting
Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion
of the Americas.' Independent Haiti had few friends. Virtually
all the world's powers sided with France against the self-proclaimed
Black Republic, which declared itself a haven not only for runaway
slaves but also for indigenous people from the rest of the Americas
(the true natives of Haiti had succumbed to infectious disease
and Spanish slavery well before the arrival of the French). Hemmed
in by slave colonies, Haiti had only one non-colonised neighbour,
the slaveholding United States, which refused to recognise its
Haiti's leaders were desperate for recognition,
since the island's only source of revenue was the sugar, coffee,
cotton and other tropical produce it had to sell. In 1825, under
threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery,
Haitian officials signed the document which was to prove the beginning
of the end for any hope of autonomy. The French king agreed to
recognise Haiti's independence only if the new republic paid France
an indemnity of 150 million francs and reduced its import and
export taxes by half. The 'debt' that Haiti recognised was incurred
by the slaves when they deprived the French owners not only of
land and equipment but of their human 'property'.
The impact of the debt repayments - which
continued until after World War Two - was devastating. In the
words of the Haitian anthropologist Jean Price-Mars, 'the incompetence
and frivolity of its leaders' had 'turned a country whose revenues
and outflows had been balanced up to then into a nation burdened
with debt and trapped in financial obligations that could never
be satisfied.' 'Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves
was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had
already paid with their blood,' the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher
By the late 19th century, the United States
had eclipsed France as a force in Haitian affairs. A US military
occupation (1915-34) brought back corvée labour and introduced
bombing from the air, while officials in Washington created the
institutions that Haitians would have to live with: the army,
above all, which now claims to have the country 'in its hands',
was created by an act of the US Congress. Demobilised by Aristide
in 1995, it never knew a non-Haitian enemy. It had plenty of internal
enemies, however. Military-backed governments, dictatorships,
chronic instability, repression, the heavy hand of Washington
over all: this state of affairs continued throughout the 20th
I learned about Haiti's history while
working on medical projects on the country's central plateau.
When I first travelled there in 1983, the Duvalier family dictatorship
had been in place for a quarter of a century. There was no dissent.
The Duvaliers and their military dealt ruthlessly with any opposition,
while the judiciary and the rest of the world looked the other
way. Haiti was already known as the poorest country in the Western
world, and those who ran it argued that force was required to
police deep poverty.
By the mid-1980s, the hunger, despair
and disease were beyond management. Baby Doc Duvalier, named 'president
for life' at 19, fled in 1986. A first attempt at democratic elections,
in 1987, led to massacres at polling stations. An army general
declared himself in charge. In September 1988, the mayor of Port-au-Prince
- a former military officer - paid a gang to set fire to a Catholic
church as mass was being said. It was packed with people, 12 of
whom died. At the altar was Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the
nemesis of the dictatorship and the army. Aristide was a proponent
of liberation theology, with its injunction that the Church proclaim
'a preferential option for the poor', but liberation theology
had its adversaries: members of Reagan's brains trust, meeting
in 1980, declared it less Christian than Communist. 'US policy,'
they said, 'must begin to counter (not react against) . . . the
"liberation theology" clergy.'
Aristide's elevation from slum priest
to presidential candidate took place against a background of right-wing
death squads and threatened military coups. He rose quickly in
the eyes of Haitians, but his stock plummeted in the United States.
The New York Times, which relies heavily on informants who can
speak English or French, had few kind words for him. 'He's a cross
between the Ayatollah and Fidel,' one Haitian businessman was
quoted as saying. 'If it comes to a choice between the ultra-left
and the ultra-right, I'm ready to form an alliance with the ultra-right.'
Haitians knew, however, that Aristide would win any democratic
election, and on 16 December 1990, he got 67 per cent of the vote
in a field of 12 candidates. No run-off was required.
The United States might not have been
able to prevent Aristide's landslide victory, but there was plenty
they could do to undermine him. The most effective method, adopted
by the first Bush administration, was to fund both the opposition
- their poor showing at the polls was no reason, it appears, to
cut off aid to them - and the military. Declassified records now
make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create
and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence
after a military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991.
Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled
overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic. For
the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas
as ruthless as the Duvaliers.
In October 1994, under Clinton, the US
military intervened and restored Aristide to power, with a little
over a year of his term left to run. Although authorised by the
UN, the restoration was basically a US operation. Then, seven
weeks after Aristide's return, Republicans took control of the
Congress, and influential Republicans have worked ever since to
block aid to Haiti or burden it with preconditions.
The aid coming through official channels
was never very substantial: the US gave Haiti, per capita, one
tenth of what it distributed in Kosovo. It is true that, as former
US ambassadors and the Bush administration have recently claimed,
hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Haiti - but not to
the elected government. A great deal of it went to the anti-Aristide
opposition. A lot also went to pay for the UN occupation, and
Halliburton support services. There was little effort to rebuild
schools, the healthcare infrastructure, roads, ports, telecommunications
During his few months in office, Aristide,
in part because of the abolition of the Haitian army, became in
1996 the first elected civilian to see another elected civilian
- René Préval - succeed him as president of Latin
America's oldest republic. Préval in turn became Haiti's
first president ever to serve out his term, not a day more or
less. In November 2000, Aristide was again elected by a landslide.
But problems had already arisen. In the local and parliamentary
elections in May, eight parliamentary seats were disputed and
when the political opposition cried foul, the US froze international
aid. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), for example, had
approved four loans, for health, education, drinking water and
road improvement. Haitian and American sources have confirmed
to me that the US asked the bank to block the loans until the
electoral disputes had been worked out. Since seven of the senators
in question resigned in 2001, and the other's term expired shortly
thereafter, that should have been the end of the aid freeze, yet
it continued throughout Aristide's tenure.
The State Department later claimed that
the freeze was decided on by a consensus of the members of the
Organisation of American States in something called the Declaration
of Quebec City. The declaration is dated 22 April 2001, and the
letter from the US representative asking that the loans not be
disbursed was dated 8 April. To quote the conclusion of one of
the few journalists to find this scandal worthy of inquiry, 'it
would seem that the effort became concerted after it was made.'
International financial institutions engaged
in discriminatory and probably illegal practices towards Haiti.
According to the London-based Haiti Support Group,
Haiti's debt to international financial
institutions and foreign governments has grown from $302 million
in 1980 to $1.134 billion today. About 40 per cent of this debt
stems from loans to the brutal Duvalier dictators, who invested
precious little of it in the country. This is known as 'odious
debt' because it was used to oppress the people, and, according
to international law, this debt need not be repaid.
Yet in order to meet the renewed demands
of the IDB, the cash-strapped Haitian government was required
to pay ever-expanding arrears on its debts, many of them linked
to loans paid out to the Duvalier dictatorship and to the military
regimes that ruled Haiti with great brutality from 1986 to 1990.
In July 2003, Haiti sent more than 90 per cent of all its foreign
reserves to Washington to pay off these arrears. As of today,
less than $4 million of the four blocked loans - which totalled
$146 million - has reached Haiti in spite of many assurances from
Even so it was not until last month that
one could read in a US daily newspaper that the aid freeze might
have contributed to the overthrow of the penniless Haitian government.
On 7 March, the Boston Globe wrote:
Today, Haiti's government, which serves
eight million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million
- less than that of Cambridge, a city of just over 100,000. And
as Haitians attempt to form a new government, many say its success
will largely depend on how much and how soon aid will flow to
the country . . . Many of Aristide's supporters, in Haiti and
abroad, angrily contend that the international community, particularly
the United States, abandoned the fledgling democracy when it needed
aid the most. Many believe that Aristide himself was the target
of the de facto economic sanctions, just as Haiti was beginning
to put its finances back in order.
That the US and France undermined Aristide
is not a fringe opinion. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and
the African Union have called for a formal investigation into
his removal. 'Most people around the world believe that Aristide's
departure was at best facilitated, at worst coerced by the US
and France,' Gayle Smith, a member of the National Security Council
staff under Clinton, recently said.
Why such animus towards Haiti's leader?
Taking up the question of the historic French debt, Aristide declared
that France 'extorted this money from Haiti by force and . . .
should give it back to us so that we can build primary schools,
primary healthcare, water systems and roads.' He did the maths,
adding in interest and adjusting for inflation, to calculate that
France owes Haiti $21,685,135,571.48 and counting. This figure
was scoffed at by some of the French, who saw the whole affair
as a farce mounted by their disgruntled former subjects; others,
it's increasingly clear, were insulted or angered when the point
was pressed in diplomatic and legal circles.
Still, Aristide kept up the pressure.
The figure of $21 billion was repeated again and again. The number
21 appeared all over the place in Haiti, along with the word 'restitution'.
On 1 January this year, during the bicentennial celebrations,
Aristide announced he would replace a 21-gun salute with a list
of the 21 things that had been done in spite of the embargo and
that would be done when restitution was made. The crowd went wild.
The French press by and large dismissed his comments as silly,
despite the legal merits of his case. Many Haitians saw Aristide
as a modern Toussaint l'Ouverture, a comparison that Aristide
did not discourage. 'Toussaint was undone by foreign powers,'
Madison Smartt Bell wrote in Harper's in January, 'and Aristide
also had suffered plenty of vexation from outside interference.'
It's usually easy to tell, in even the
briefest conversation about Aristide, how your interlocutor feels
about him. Opinion in Haiti is almost always referred to as 'polarised'
in the US press, but this isn't true in every sense. Elections
and polls, even recent ones, show that the poor majority still
support Aristide. It's the middle classes and the traditional
political elites who disagree about him, as well as people like
me: non-Haitians who, for whatever reasons, concern themselves
with that country's affairs.
Between the coup that followed Aristide's
inauguration and his return to Haiti, the coverage in the US was
of the same character as today's. On 22 September 1994, the New
York Times ran a front-page piece called 'The Mouse that Roared'.
From it, we get a keen sense of Aristide as irritant:
The Clinton crowd has had to work hard
to justify him to lawmakers who were unnerved by the October 1993
closed-door CIA briefing to Congress, in which the intelligence
agency offered information - later proven false - that Father
Aristide had received psychiatric treatment at a Montreal hospital
in 1980. Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, left
the briefing and branded him a 'psychopath' - a slur it has been
hard for Father Aristide to get over.
It would be convenient for the traditional
Haitian elites and their allies abroad if Aristide, who has been
forced to preside over unimaginable penury, had been abandoned
by his own people. But Gallup polls in 2002, the results of which
were never disseminated, showed that, despite his faults, he is
far and away Haiti's most popular and trusted politician. So what
is to be done about the people who, to the horror of the Republican
right, keep voting for him?
The protégés of Jesse Helms
have had more say in Aristide's fate than the Haitian electorate
have. Although US officials stated initially that he had been
'taken to the country of his choice' at the end of February, Aristide's
claim that he had no idea where he was going seems more plausible.
He had never been to the Central African Republic before. About
the size of Texas and with a population of only three million,
it is subject to French military and economic interests. A BBC
story in March 2003 reported that the capital, Bangui, was the
world's most dangerous city, while the US advises its citizens
not to travel to the country; the US embassy was closed two years
On the tarmac, Aristide thanked the Africans
for their hospitality, and then said: 'I declare in overthrowing
me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will
grow back because the roots are l'Ouverturian.'
The Bush administration appears to have
put two men in charge of Latin American diplomacy, and they've
been at it for a long time. As the 'special presidential envoy
to the western hemisphere', Otto Reich is the top US diplomat
in the region, even though he has never survived a House or Senate
hearing; he was given the post by Bush during a Congressional
recess. In the 1990s, Reich was a lobbyist for industry (one beneficiary
of his work: Lockheed Martin, who have been selling fighter planes
to Chile); before that he had a long record of government service.
During the civil war in Nicaragua, according
to William Finnegan in a New Yorker profile, Reich
headed a Contra-support programme that
operated out of an outfit called the Office of Public Diplomacy.
The office arranged speeches and recommended books to school libraries,
but also leaked false stories to the press - that, for instance,
the Sandinista government was receiving Soviet MiG fighters, or
was involved in drug trafficking . . . The office employed army
psychological-warfare specialists, and worked closely with Lieutenant-Colonel
Oliver North, at the National Security Council.
During the course of the Iran-Contra investigation,
the US comptroller general concluded that Reich's office had 'engaged
in prohibited, covert propaganda activities'. But by then Reich
had been named US ambassador to Venezuela, where he laid the groundwork
for future efforts to destabilise President Chávez. Not
all this activity is covert: less than a year ago, Reich was on
record welcoming a coup against Chávez, and urging the
State Department and opinion makers to support the 'new government'.
The only problem was that the Venezuelan majority failed to fall
into step, and Chávez remained.
Last month, the Bush administration sent
Roger Noriega to Haiti to 'work out' the crisis. Not everyone
knew who he was: Noriega's career has been spent in the shadows
of Congressional committees. For the better part of a decade,
he worked for Helms and his allies, and it's no secret he has
had Aristide in his sights for years. US Haiti policy is determined
by a small number of people who were prominent in either Reagan's
or George H.W. Bush's cabinets. Most are back in government today
after an eight-year vacation in conservative think tanks or lobbying
firms. Elliot Abrams, convicted of withholding information from
Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings, serves on the National
Security Council; Reagan's national security adviser John Poindexter
until recently headed the Pentagon's new counterterrorism unit;
John Negroponte, former ambassador to Honduras, is now ambassador
to the UN. Jeanne Kirkpatrick is on the board of the International
Republican Institute, a body which has been actively supporting
the opposition in Haiti (my sources suggest that it backed the
demobilised army personnel who provided the opposition's muscle
at the beginning of the year, though it denies this).
The players on the Haitian side fall into
one of two categories: first, Haiti's business elite, including
those who own the media, and then the former military and paramilitaries
- the people who were involved in the 1991-94 coup. Some have
been in jail since then for murder, drug trafficking and crimes
against humanity. Today, every single one of them is out.
Among those released by the rebels is
the former general Prosper Avril, a leader of the notorious Presidential
Guard under both Duvaliers. Avril seized power in September 1988,
and was deposed in March 1990. A US District Court found that
his regime engaged in a 'systematic pattern of egregious human
rights abuses'. It also found him personally responsible for enough
'torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' to award six
of his victims a total of $41 million in compensation. The victims
included opposition politicians, union leaders, scholars, even
a doctor trying to practise community medicine. Avril's repression
was not subtle: three torture victims were paraded on national
television with their faces grotesquely swollen, their limbs bruised
and their clothing covered with blood. He suspended 37 articles
of the constitution, and declared a state of siege.
The US started protecting Avril shortly
after the 1994 restitution of Aristide. In November that year,
the then secretary of state, Warren Christopher, relayed to the
US ambassador intelligence reports that the Red Star Organisation,
under Avril's leadership, was planning a 'harassment and assassination
campaign directed at . . . Aristide supporters'. This information
was not passed on to the Haitian authorities. In December, the
Haitian police, acting on their own information, sought to arrest
Avril at his home. Immediately after the police arrived, US soldiers
turned up and tried to dissuade them from making the arrest. By
the time they got in, Avril had fled to the neighbouring residence
of the Colombian ambassador. Police searching Avril's house found
military uniforms, illegal police radios and a cache of weapons.
He escaped to Israel but later returned
to Haiti, where his international and potential military support
deterred further attempts to arrest him. He founded a political
party, which has never fielded candidates in an election but was
invited by the IRI to participate in developing an opposition
to Aristide. In May 2001, after US troops had withdrawn from Haiti,
the police finally seized the opportunity to execute Avril's arrest
warrant. The successful arrest was greeted with applause by the
vast majority of Haitians and by human rights and justice groups
in Haiti, the US and Europe. Amnesty International asserted that
the arrest 'could mark a step forward by the Haitian justice system
in its struggle against impunity': 'the gravity of the human rights
violations committed during General Avril's period in power, from
his 1988 coup d'état to his departure in March 1990, cannot,'
Amnesty said, 'be ignored.' France's Committee to Prosecute Duvalier
concluded that 'the general must be tried.' On 9 December 2003,
the magistrate investigating the Piatre Massacre in 1990, when
several peasants lost their lives, formally charged Avril with
responsibility. He was in prison awaiting the end of the pre-trial
proceedings when he was freed on 2 March - a few days after Aristide
The rebel leader Guy Philippe received
training, during the last coup, at a US military facility in Ecuador.
When the army was demobilised, Philippe was incorporated into
the new police force, serving as police chief in the Port-au-Prince
suburb of Delmas and in the second city, Cap-Haïtien. During
his tenure, the UN International Civilian Mission learned, dozens
of suspected gang members were summarily ex ecuted, most of them
by police under the command of Philippe's deputy. The US embassy
has also implicated Philippe in drug smuggling during his police
career. Crimes committed in large part by ex-military policemen,
are often pinned on Aristide, even though he sought to prevent
coup-happy human rights abusers from ending up in these posts.
Philippe fled Haiti in October 2000, when
the authorities discovered him plotting a coup with a clique of
fellow police chiefs. Since then, the Haitian government has accused
him of masterminding terrorist attacks in July and December 2001,
as well as lethal hit-and-run raids against police stations on
Haiti's central plateau. (Over the last two years, four of our
ambulances have been stolen, and members of our medical staff
have been held hostage.) Last month, Philippe's men bragged to
the US press that they had executed Aristide supporters in Cap-Haïtien
and Port-au-Prince, and many have indeed been reported missing.
'I am the chief, the military chief. The country is in my hands,'
Philippe boasted on 2 March, which triggered the following response
from Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace laureate and former president
of Costa Rica: 'Nothing could more clearly prove why Haiti does
not need an army than the boasting of rebel leader Guy Philippe
last week in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian army was abolished nine
years ago during a period of democratic transition, precisely
to prevent the country from falling back into the hands of military
men.' Philippe told the Associated Press that he would use his
new powers to arrest Haiti's prime minister, Yvon Neptune, and
proceeded to lead a mob in an attack on Neptune's house. Philippe
has been quoted as saying that the man he most admires is Pinochet.
The list goes on. Louis-Jodel Chamblain
was a sergeant in the Haitian army until 1989 or 1990. He reappeared
on the scene in 1993 as the second in command of the FRAPH. (Emmanuel
'Toto' Constant, its leader, is now living as a free man in Queens,
New York.) Among the FRAPH's victims was Guy Malary, the justice
minister, ambushed and machine-gunned with his bodyguard and a
driver. In September 1995, Chamblain was one of seven senior military
and FRAPH leaders convicted in absentia and sentenced to forced
labour for life for their involvement in the September 1993 execution
of Antoine Izméry, a well-known pro-democracy activist.
In late 1994 or early 1995, he went into voluntary exile in the
As for the traditional political elite,
some have wanted to live in the National Palace ever since the
time it was occupied by Papa Doc. Others may appear more marginal
but they have done their share of harm. When, the other day, Vladimir
Jeanty was shown destroying artwork on public display in Port-au-Prince,
he was described as a 'pastor from the Party of God'. In fact
he is another perennial presidential candidate, delighted to have
the chance to burn precious artefacts linked with voodoo and other
aspects of Haitian culture - and to do so in full view of the
US-born André Apaid, known in the
US press as 'the leader of the civil society movement to oust
Aristide', is the founder of a TV station and owner of a garment
manufacturing firm (a subsidiary of Alpha Industries) that was
prominently featured in news reports about Disney's sweatshop
suppliers. Aristide's relentless push to raise the minimum wage
above 72 gourdes a day - about £1 - cut into the massive
profits of the offshore assembly industry. The US Congress has
proposed building new garment factories in Haiti and encouraging
American companies to contract out more sweatshop labour - good
news for Apaid.
At the other end of the social spectrum
from Apaid are the chimères, the groups described in the
foreign press as armed thugs working for the Aristide government.
But who are the chimères? Residents of Haiti's slums, long
excluded from civil society, they 'were indeed chimeras', Madison
Smartt Bell wrote. 'Ill fortune left them as unrealised shadows
. . . These were the people Aristide had originally been out to
The salvage operation came to an end last
month as 'rebels' continued to 'take cities'. I work in these
'cities' and I saw the rebels' modus operandi. They came in, shot
the police - who usually numbered no more than two or three -
and left. Only a similarly equipped counterforce could have stopped
them. The beleaguered government appealed for help in the Security
Council, but this was delayed by the Bush administration - delayed
long enough for the government to fall, or be pushed out.
Did the US and France have a hand in Aristide's
removal? Were he and his wife being held against their will? Most
of Aristide's claims, initially disputed by US officials from
Noriega to Donald Rumsfeld, are now acknowledged to be true. His
enemies' claims that Aristide met with officials in Antigua -
Aristide said they were not allowed to move from their seats -
were undermined by reports from Antigua itself. Noriega acknowledged
during a House hearing that Aristide did not know of his destination
until less than an hour before landing in the Central African
Republic. Even CAR officials acknowledge that no Haitian authorities
were involved in the choice of destination.
Many more questions remain unanswered.
We know that US funds overtly financed the opposition, but did
they also fund, even indirectly, the rebellion, which featured
high-powered US weapons only a year after twenty thousand such
weapons were promised to the Dominican Republic? Senator Christopher
Dodd is urging an investigation of US training sessions for six
hundred 'rebels' in the Dominican Republic, and wants to find
out 'how the IRI spent $1.2 million of taxpayers' money' in Haiti.
Answering these and related questions would take an intrepid investigative
reporter, rather than a physician like myself, working, with some
trepidation, in central Haiti. It would need a reporter willing
to take on hard questions about US policies in Latin America.
But about the return of the military, there can be little doubt.
In his first public statement the man sworn in as Haiti's new
prime minister announced that Aristide's order to replace the
military with a civilian police force violated Haiti's constitution;
he promised to name a commission to examine the issues surrounding
Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist,
is Maud and Lillian Presley Professor at Harvard Medical School
and author of The Uses of Haiti and Pathologies of Power.