The Demonization of Jean-Bertrand Aristide
by Jim Naureckas
from Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR), November/December 1994
Usually when the U.S. military intervenes overseas, the U.S.
press demonizes the enemy. But in the case of the Haiti occupation,
many media reports have spent more time demonizing the U.S.'s
ostensible ally, deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Newsweek (9/26/94) described Aristide as "an anti-American
demagogue, an unsteady left-wing populist who threatened private
enterprise and condoned violence against his political opponents."
An editorial in the liberal New York Newsday (9/21/94) proclaimed:
"Aristide seems bent on proving his critics' claims: that
he's a fickle ideologue, a rabble-rouser with a messianic complex
essentially uninterested in the pragmatic realities and possibly
incompetent to be chief exec."
Fred Barnes on the McLaughlin Group (9/20/94) dismissed the
fact that two-thirds of the Haitian population voted for Aristide:
"The notion that because Aristide was once elected, that
we now have to impose him, carries democratic formalism to an
extreme....Hitler was elected."
Aristide has long been the target of a disinformation campaign,
with CIA distortions sourced to the Haitian military being disseminated
through the media by P.R. agents paid for by the Haitian elite.
The key elements of the campaign have long been disproven, but
they still keep coming up in coverage of the Haitian occupation.
John McLaughlin provided one of the shriller summaries of
the claims on the McLaughlin Group (9/20/94): "Aristide has
been charged by eye-witnesses with criminal horrors, including
assassination; complicity in the humiliation of the Papal Nuncio...and,
most horribly, Aristide's exhorting of mobs to use necklacing,
Haitian slang for gang execution with a gasoline-soaked tire put
around the neck and set aflame, also called Pere Lebrun."
McLaughlin then showed a video clip that he said showed "Aristide
inciting a mob to Pere Lebrun with his lunatic sing-song chant."
The assault against the Papal Nuncio, who was suspected of
supporting an attempted coup, occurred before Aristide came to
power, and Aristide was not involved. As for the alleged "Pere
Lebrun" speech, it nowhere mentions necklacing, and seems
in context to be referring to the Haitian constitution as a "beautiful
tool." Despite the constant repetition of the claim that
the spell-binding Aristide "exhorted mobs to use necklacing,"
there were no documented cases of necklacing from the day of Aristide's
inauguration until the day of the coup.
While the old charges linger on (Newsweek, 9/19/94, merged
quotes from two different statements into "one angry speech"
to make it seem like Aristide had called for necklacing), new
disinformation is surfacing -- often based on the flimsiest of
Time (9/26/94) ran an item on "a series of uncorroborated
but sensational allegations that "Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
Haiti's erstwhile President, took hundreds of thousands of dollars
in look-the-other-way money from Colombian drug cartels while
Not even Time claims that they have credible evidence for
this: "None of the claims have been supported, and the sources
may have suspect motives," the magazine admits. In reality,
far from looking the other way, the ascetic Aristide instigated
the first-ever serious crackdown on drug trafficking by the military
-- whose involvement in the cocaine trade is well-documented.
What could motivate Time editors to print such a dubious charge
against Aristide? Time's standards were quite different when a
reporter there tried to do a story in 1987 -- based on substantial
documentation -- about drug smuggling by Oliver North's contra
resupply network. After the article was repeatedly sent back for
rewrites, the reporter told Extra! (11-12/91), as senior editor
leveled with him: "Time is institutionally behind the contras.
If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you'd have
no trouble getting it in the magazine."
The Cherubin Smear
Another Aristide smear involves his administration's Port-au-Prince
police chief, Col. Pierre Cherubin, whose human rights record
compares very favorably with others who have held that post --
particularly compared to his self-appointed successor, Col. Michel
But while Cherubin was in charge, five alleged "bandits"
were murdered by Port-au-Prince police -- a crime for which a
subordinate of Cherubin's was arrested. Because of the new seriousness
about human rights under Aristide, an investigation was launched
to see if Cherubin himself had anything to do with the killings
-- an investigation aborted by the 1991 coup.
This incident has resurfaced in distorted form. The Washington
Post's version of the charge (9/18/94) is that Cherubin was "authorizing
torture and killing of Aristide's opponents." The Post's
evidence? An anonymous U.S. government official provided a "classified
assessment" that "concludes there is circumstantial
evidence to suggest it could be true." If Woodward and Bernstein
were dead, they'd be turning over in their graves.
As with the children's game of Telephone, the charge becomes
wilder with each retelling: John McLaughlin (9/20/94) refers to
him as "Cherubin the torturer and the murderer."
Why is this incident being re-examined now? Because Cherubin
is Aristide's representative in trying to form a new police force.
If Cherubin can be discredited, Aristide's influence over the
new force may be greatly limited.
It was difficult to whitewash the murderous Haitian military
and police, who savagely beat demonstrators in plain view of U.S.
cameras. (CBS's Dan Rather did make an honest effort, conducting
a series of interviews with Gen. Raoul Cedras -- whom Rather referred
to as "President Cedras" -- that concentrated on his
patriotism, honor and love of family, and avoided any serious
mention of his human rights abuses.) Instead, reports adopted
the "balanced" approach of condemning equally the violence
of Aristide and the military.
"For two centuries, political opponents in Haiti have
routinely slaughtered each other," wrote R.W. Apple in the
New York Times (9/20/94). "Backers of President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, followers of General Cedras and the former Tontons Macoute
retain their homicidal tendencies, to say nothing of their weapons."
"Everybody in both factions down there, both factions
are shot through with slavering murderers," Jack Germond
declared on the McLaughlin Group (9/20/94).
This equation of the military and Aristide would seem ridiculous
if news reports were accurately reporting on Aristide's human
rights record. The number of killings dropped precipitously during
Aristide's tenure: There were 53 murders in Haiti in the seven
months he held office, including common non-political murders,
spontaneous lynchings of criminal suspects, and killings by the
military. A comprehensive Human Rights Watch report does not attribute
direct responsibility for any of these murders to Aristide. Compare
that with the estimated 3,000 killings by the military regime
since Aristide's overthrow.
Still, violence is treated as an endemic quality in Haitian
life. "Vengeance, not voting, has been the Haitian way,"
reported Newsweek (9/26/94). Morton Kondracke (McLaughlin Group,
9/20/94) gave the same sentiment more of a racist spin: "Nobody
is going to bring democracy to Haiti any time soon. This is a
country soaked in blood -- primitive, backward, you know."
Unnoticed fact: The per capita murder rate in the United States
in a normal year is roughly nine times what it was in Haiti under
R.W. Apple (New York Times, 9/20/94) suggested vaguely that
Clinton's occupation would be "another futile attempt to
reshape a society that has long resisted reform." But the
absence of any real historical context was glaring in most U.S.
coverage of the occupation.
Occasionally reporters mentioned the 1915-1934 occupation
as a "previous attempt to support democracy." But how
many mentioned that the U.S. occupation dissolved the Haitian
parliament, forced Haiti to accept a U.S.-written constitution
that allowed foreign ownership of land, and reinstituted virtual
slavery? (This and other information about Haitian history can
be found in The Uses of Haiti, by Paul Farmer.)
Reporters could have quoted the words of the commander who
led the Marines ashore in 1915, Col. Littleton W.T. Waller: He
wrote that the Haitians were "real niggers and no mistake
-- there are some fine-looking, well-educated polished men here
but they are real nigs beneath the surface."
How often did reporters mention that the U.S. had intervened
militarily against Haiti at least 27 times before 1915? Or that
the first U.S. intervention was in 1791, when the U.S. sent troops
and $750,000 to Haiti to try to suppress a slave revolt against
the French colonizers?
Or reporters could have recalled a more recent intervention,
when Marines landed in Haiti in the 1960s during the Duvalier
dictatorship. Their orders, according to Col. Robert Heinl, the
officer in charge, were "to help keep Duvalier in power so
he can serve out his full term in office, and maybe a little longer
than that if everything works out."
The U.S. military's fondness for dictatorship is not a thing
of the past, as a timely article by Allan Nairn in The Nation
(10/3/94)documented: "You're going to end up dealing with
the same folks as before," Maj. Louis Kernisan, a Defense
Intelligence official involved with "retraining" Haitian
police, explained, "the five families that run the country,
the military and the bourgeoisie. They're the same folks that
are supposed to be the bad guys now, but the bottom line is that
you know you're always going to end up dealing with them because
they speak your language, they understand your system, they've
been educated in your country. It's not going to be the slum guy
from Cite Soleil."
"Given Haiti's bloody history and President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide's own dubious record," right-wing columnist Mona
Charen predicted (USA Today, 9/21/94), "the chance is slim
that the 15,000 U.S. troops in Haiti will bring either lasting
peace or political freedom to the island." Maybe it's the
U.S. military's "dubious record," not Aristide's, that
should give journalists cause for pessimism.