Chronicle of a Coup

by Steven Dudley

The Progressive magazine, May 2004


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 twenty years.

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 him.

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 Chamblain.

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 home.

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 prison sentence.

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.

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