Enemy Ally:

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."

Disinformation Campaign

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 reporting.

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 in office."

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 Francois.

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.

Moral Equivalence

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 Aristide's administration.

Historic Revisionism

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.

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