This article first appeared in the newspaper Haiti Liberté, in nine instalments, October-November 2007. Peter Hallward is the author of a new book, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, which will be released by VERSO in April 2008. For a limited time you can buy a discounted pre-release copy of the book online from Grenadier Books in Brooklyn, New York or from the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
A little less than four years ago, in late February 2004, France, the US and a few other old ‘friends of Haiti’ called on the country’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign.
No doubt Haiti’s friends had their reasons. Following its landslide election victory in May 2000 Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party had proved that it was likely to dominate Haiti’s parliamentary democracy for the foreseeable future: after the rather less decisive election of George W. Bush later that same year, some of Aristide’s older friends in the US began taking newly energetic steps to undermine his administration. A couple of years later, when Aristide began asking France to repay the enormous amount of money that it had extorted from its former slave colony during the previous century, international responses to his government quickly evolved from routine hostility to outright aggression.
No-one disputes the fact that during his last few days in office, these same countries threatened Aristide with a ‘bloodbath’ if he chose to serve out the remainder of his term in office. Nor can anyone easily dispute the fact that by early 2004, Haiti’s oldest friends had done everything necessary to make such a threat look imminent and plausible. Even before he returned to office in February 2001, they had gone to considerable lengths to promote both a political and a paramilitary opposition to Aristide’s government, an opposition that adopted the elimination of Aristide as its very raison d’être. Relentless pressure from these opponents, combined with punitive economic measures implemented by their foreign patrons, eventually backed Aristide into a corner from which he couldn’t escape. By 28 February 2004, the area of the country that remained under the government’s direct control had shrunk to little more than greater Port-au-Prince. A small but well-armed and well-funded military force led by ex-soldiers Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain was apparently poised to attack the capital. The government’s rather less well-armed security forces were no longer reliable, and the international community had made it clear that it would only intervene once Aristide agreed to step down. Although there’s little chance that Philippe’s men could have taken the city on their own they might well have managed it, eventually, with suitable international support. The night of 28/29 February, the prospect of a bloodbath was real enough.
What’s more controversial ? and more likely to stay that way ? is what happened in the climactic hours just before Aristide left Haiti. With his back to the wall, did he choose to save his skin and accept a US offer for safe passage to a friendly third country? Or, on the contrary, was he forced to resign by hostile foreign troops before being led, manu militari, onto an American plane?
Did Aristide leap to safety, or was he pushed into captivity?
Representatives of the US government have spoken repeatedly and at length about what they say happened that night. People more sympathetic to the Lavalas government, by contrast, have had few occasions to present their side of the story in a systematic way. I’ve spoken now with several of the leading actors in this drama, and in what follows I present their testimony in the detail that this most controversial moment in recent Haitian history demands.
In my opinion it’s perfectly obvious, in fact blindingly obvious, that Aristide was pushed out. Aristide was pushed, and he was pushed by the one and only prospect that he was not prepared to confront ? the immediate prospect of overwhelming violence against unarmed civilians, coupled with the longer-term prospect of a debilitating civil war.
Aristide’s government wasn’t perfect, but its violent removal was an outrageous political crime. What complicates the picture, a little, is that it seems to have been Aristide himself who, at the last minute, managed to force his foreign enemies actually and overtly to push him out, by refusing to bow to their demands that he simply resign and leave on his own. Although he was unable to save his government in the face of implacable international hostility, Aristide could at least make sure that the world would see who had actually been responsible for its demise.
Before it can see this, however, the world will have to open its eyes.
I The ‘Big Lie’
Let’s consider, to begin with, the explanation offered by the people who claim to have rescued Aristide. The US-French account of what happened on the night of 28 February is pretty straightforward. US Secretary of State Colin Powell and US Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley (echoed by the French foreign minister Dominique De Villepin and his ambassador Thierry Burkard) say that as the international community began to turn its back on him, even so intractable and violent an autocrat as Aristide could see he was doomed. They say that as Guy Philippe’s small group of ex-army rebels started to overrun isolated police stations in Haiti’s provincial towns and cities, Aristide realised that his ‘bandit’ militias were no match for their erratic but ruthless firepower. They say that as a few parts of Port-au-Prince descended into anarchy on 26-27 February, his nerve cracked.
Colin Powell and James Foley say, then, that on the evening of Saturday 28 February Aristide sent out a desperate appeal for help to the American embassy. Foley says that Aristide asked him for a way out that would ‘guarantee his security’ and ‘protect his property’. Foley also says that he and his colleagues ‘were completely stunned’ by Aristide’s request. ‘We had not the slightest inkling that he would be prepared to leave, on that day’, so Aristide’s sudden decision to flee ‘caught us totally off-guard.’ Powell’s Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega too ‘found it rather remarkable that Aristide decided to leave, and throughout the evening on Saturday, I wholly expected that he would change his mind because he has been proven to be erratic and unreliable.’
According to Ambassador Foley and his versatile deputy Luis Moreno, Aristide made a perfectly free and voluntary choice. ‘Aristide was not persuaded at all’, remembers Foley. ‘He decided himself to leave. He feared he faced death if he could not get out.’ Since Philippe’s rebels were apparently ready to advance on Port-au-Prince, Foley admits that his government shared these fears. ‘We feared that in that confrontation the president would be killed’, and therefore the US resolved to mount a last-minute operation to save his life. (In fact, on 17 February Foley himself had dismissed Philippe’s troop a little group of people who had ‘no real support’; Foley’s immediate boss Roger Noriega likewise derided them as ‘a dozen losers’).
No doubt the US could have done a few other things to prevent so fatal a confrontation. They could have endorsed CARICOM’s urgent appeal to the UN for the deployment of a hundred or so international peacekeepers, for instance, or they could have simply instructed Guy Philippe’s men to lay down their M16s and return to their US-sanctioned exile in the Dominican Republic. But as Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson later explained, rather than discourage Philippe and his ‘ragtag band’, Foley preferred instead to talk ‘with President Aristide; he confronted him with the situation that he was going to meet on the morn, so to speak, confronted him with the devastation that was likely to take place, and President Aristide, to his credit, made the decision to take Ambassador Foley’s offer and to leave the country.’ As far as the world’s most powerful democracy was concerned, Wilkerson said, it was clearly the elected president rather than the ex-military insurgent who needed to leave his country. ‘Aristide was the focal point. Aristide was the person who needed to be removed from Haiti, and even he understood that. In the conversation he had with our ambassador, he understood that. He knew that he was the lightning rod, and that if he didn’t remove himself from the island, there was going to be a lot of bloodshed.’
Embroidering a little more on his story, Ambassador Foley says that he spoke with Aristide at least four times during that Saturday night. He says ‘I told him how very sad I thought it was that this is happening. It was a very sad series of conversations.’ Foley remembers that ‘Aristide “never challenged our position” that there would be a bloodbath if he did not leave.’ He remembers that ‘what was surprising was Aristide’s passivity and philosophical resignation. My own feeling was that Aristide had already decided to leave. He didn’t need convincing.’ Perhaps he had come to share Foley’s candid assessment of his ‘horrendous’ legacy.
Stunned or not, a saddened US government quickly arranged for Aristide’s safe transport out of Haiti, on a plane that took off from a US-occupied Port-au-Prince airport around 6:15 am on the morning of Sunday 29 February. According to Foley, in addition to a reinforced troop of US Marines already present in Port-au-Prince an elite six-member US army team arrived to coordinate the operation ‘with Aristide’s security personnel, including the head of his bodyguards from the California-based Steele Foundation’, David Johnson. Foley’s deputy Luis Moreno says that together with the newly arrived US personnel he accompanied Aristide and his wife to the airport. Like his boss, Moreno too felt sad. ‘“I expressed sadness that I was here to watch him leave,” he told the Washington Post on 2 March. “Sometimes life is like that,” Aristide replied.’ At some point before he left, Aristide was induced to sign a letter which, as far as his US minders were concerned, appeared to provide constitutional grounds for a democratic transition. ‘The constitution must not be written with the blood of the Haitian people’, it read. ‘If my resignation prevents the shedding of blood, I agree to leave.’ And then Moreno ‘shook his hand and he went away.’
Since the US sought only to protect him, it allowed the fugitive to pick his own destination. The US says that Aristide chose the safety of Bangui, in the Central African Republic ? he would be safer there, presumably, than in a lawless place like Miami, or in openly supportive neighbouring countries like Venezuela, Jamaica or Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. ‘We did not force him on to the airplane’, Colin Powell insisted on 1 March; ‘he went onto the airplane willingly, and that is the truth.’ George Bush’s spokesman Scott McClellan likewise insisted that Aristide’s departure was ‘entirely his decision’, and that the decision to go to the Central African Republic was also ‘his choice, the choice of the country to which he would choose to travel.’ McLellan had a little more to say about the Haitian people and their choices:
Conspiracy theories do nothing to help the Haitians move forward to a better, more prosperous future [...]. We are working on what is in the best interest of the Haitian people, as expressed by the Haitian people [...]. We achieved a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional resolution to the situation in Haiti [...]. Let’s put this in context. Sometimes people lose faith in their leaders [...]. Aristide was not adhering to his democratic principles that were enshrined in the constitution [but] we now have a democratic constitutional process that is working, that is moving forward. So we helped preserve a democratic and constitutional government by the action that we took, along with the international community.
On Monday March 1st, Colin Powell firmly rejected Aristide’s frantic insistence that he had been kidnapped by US troops. ‘I was intimately involved in this situation all through Saturday night’, Powell explained.
The first call we received from security people of President Aristide, people who work for him who contacted our security people, and there was a question about their ability to continue protecting him. And he wanted to discuss with our Ambassador the possibility of departure and he had several questions that he put to our Ambassador.
The Ambassador consulted with me and Assistant Secretary Noriega by telephone. We told him he could take the call and see what President Aristide had in mind. And he talked about protection of property, protection of his personal property, his ? property of some of his ministers, and would he have some choice as to where he was going if he decided to leave.
We gave him answers to these questions, positive answers. And then in the course of the evening, other conversations took place. He said he wanted to think about it, he wanted to speak to his wife, which he did. And he came back to us and said that it was his decision, based on what his security people were also telling him about the deteriorating situation, that he should leave.
(It may not be unreasonable to judge Powell’s ‘positive answers’ to Aristide’s various questions according to the one that Powell himself chose to emphasise here ? the protection of Aristide’s property. Powell’s positive answer to this question is easily verified. It involved the immediate withdrawal of all security from Aristide’s house, thereby allowing it to be comprehensively looted and trashed for several days. It remains an empty shell to this day. Around 7am on 29 February, the house in which Aristide’s prime minister Yvon Neptune was staying suffered the same fate, obliging him to spend the next twelve nights on the floor of his office. Back in 1994, by contrast, the US didn’t just protect the property of the dictatorial general Raoul Cédras, they actually rented a couple of his houses for several months).
A couple of days later, Powell’s spokesman reasserted the same basic line, in the face of muted calls for an inquiry from CARICOM and the congressional Black Caucus. ‘There was no kidnapping, there was no coup, there were no threats’, so ‘there’s nothing to investigate [...]. We did not advocate his stepping down.’ Instead, ‘we ended up rescuing him by taking him out of the country in the face of almost certain violence [...]. Now that we are where we are, the focus needs to be on moving forward.’
Broadly speaking, the mainstream press accepted, and still accepts, this official US explanation more or less at face value. But leaving aside the tricky question about whether it was Aristide (winner of 92% of the vote in 2000) or Philippe (winner of 2% of the vote in 2006) who might most reasonably be held responsible for the imminent prospect of a bloodbath in Haiti, there are still a few awkward problems with the US version of events.
In the first place, if Aristide’s decision to resign was a simple matter of free choice, it’s at least a little puzzling that he chose to exercise his freedom in such remarkable solitude and haste. All through February 2004 Aristide repeatedly insisted on his determination to serve out the remainder of his term in office, and he never seems to have told anyone, including his closest political allies and friends, up until midnight or 1am on the morning of Sunday 29 February, that he was even prepared to consider leaving office before his mandate came to an end in February 2006. The last time his chief legal counsellor Ira Kurzban managed to speak with him was on the morning of Saturday 28 February, and there wasn’t so much as a hint that Aristide had begun to toy with the idea of resignation. His international press secretary Michelle Karshan was away in the Dominican Republic that weekend but received a note from Aristide’s wife Mildred the night of 28 February, a note that simply discussed new proposals for moving forward in another round of negotiations with the political opposition ? again there wasn’t a whisper about resignation. Late that night, members of Aristide’s entourage confirmed long-standing arrangements for a series of interviews at the National Palace (with Tavis Smiley and George Stephanopoulos, among others) planned for the following day. ‘Several of us were in touch with [Aristide...] until very late Saturday night,’ confirmed Jamaican Prime Minister and CARICOM chairman P.J. Patterson. ‘Nothing that was said to us indicated that the president was contemplating a resignation.’ Without exception, Aristide’s closest allies and confidants all testify to the same point.
In the second place, given US insistence on the free and voluntary nature of this resignation, it’s quite puzzling that the US itself chose to arrange it in utter secrecy, in the middle of the night, apparently in the absence of any cameras or reporters or any sort of independent witness who might later have been able to confirm its voluntary qualities to a (predictably?) suspicious Haitian electorate. When reporter David Adams asked Foley and Moreno about this, they candidly explained that it was a simple mistake, an oversight due to the fact that the rescue operation had to be mounted at great speed and with only a skeleton staff. Perhaps no one in the US embassy had yet managed to find the time to plan for the aftermath of an event they had actively pursued for several years. Perhaps this same lack of preparation helps to account for the fact that Foley was prepared to accept such a strangely worded and enigmatic ‘letter of resignation.’ But when dealing with so ‘momentous an event as the resignation of a President’, notes lawyer Brian Concannon, ‘common sense would require a clear statement that demonstrates an unequivocal and freely-made decision to resign. Instead, this letter seems closer to something written by someone who did not intend to resign, but was not free to express that intention.’
It’s still more puzzling that Aristide himself would have chosen the Central African Republic as his preferred place of refuge. CAR is a violent, dictatorial and heavily policed client state of Aristide’s most implacable international enemy, France, and as soon as he arrived he was effectively kept under house arrest and blocked from virtually all access to the media or the telephone. For someone in Aristide’s position the advantages of CAR over a place like Jamaica, say, are not obvious. Powell and Noriega hastened to explain that Aristide’s ‘first choice’ had been South Africa. Regrettably, however, they said that after his plane was already making its way across the Atlantic, Thabo Mbeki ? Aristide’s staunchest international ally ? suddenly reneged on an initial promise to grant him temporary asylum, obliging the US to spend around a dozen dreary hours looking for an alternative destination. The New York Times and other papers dutifully reported this intriguing assertion as fact, and some reporters continue to repeat it to this day, on the sole basis of Foley’s say-so. But both Aristide and his pilot and confidant Frantz Gabriel (who accompanied the Aristides into exile on 29 February) insist that they never asked South Africa for asylum. Gabriel says that when he was led onto the plane Aristide ‘had no idea know where he was going.’ Aristide’s friend Randall Robinson spoke with the South African foreign minister on the afternoon of Sunday 29 February, and was told ‘we haven’t heard anything from [Aristide]. We don’t know where he is, and there’s been no request for asylum.’ On 2 March Dumisani Kumalo, the South African ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed that Aristide had never requested request asylum or exile in South Africa, and that the South African government had ‘not denied him amnesty or exile as alleged by the US State Department and The New York Times.’ A few weeks after his expulsion from Haiti, South African president Thabo Mbeki welcomed Aristide with open arms, and continues to welcome him there to this day.
It’s also rather puzzling, if Aristide really did opt to flee Haiti out of fears for his own security, that his French and American friends didn’t just leave his reasonably competent and well-connected team of Steele Foundation security guards to fly him out on their own.
II A Surprise Attack?
Since neither the French and American governments nor their representatives in the media have yet managed to come up with convincing answers to these questions, some Aristide loyalists prefer to make sense of what happened on 28/29 February along rather different lines. They assume that as their president was preparing to defend Port-au-Prince against Guy Philippe’s assault, US troops suddenly burst into his house at Tabarre and captured him. They assume that Aristide was the powerless victim of a surprise attack. Aristide’s old friend and counsellor Randall Robinson was in regular touch with him all through the events of February, and after speaking to him on March 1st insisted that ‘Aristide did not resign. He was kidnapped and all of the circumstances seem to support his assertion. Had he resigned, we wouldn’t need blacked out windows and blocked communications and military taking him away at gunpoint. Had he resigned, he would have been happy to leave the country. He was not. He resisted. Emphatically not. He did not resign. He was abducted by the United States: a democratically elected president, abducted by the United States in the commission of an American induced coup. This is a frightening thing to contemplate.’
This explanation is certainly much closer to the real situation and the real balance of forces in Haiti than the absurd story invented by Foley and Moreno. It’s perfectly clear that on the evening of 28 February, Aristide was confronted with the immediate prospect of death, both for himself, his wife and for thousands of his supporters. It’s clear that the Franco-US alliance forced him out of the country at gunpoint, not just figuratively but very literally; according to a well-placed source in Port-au-Prince, if the US can in some sense be said to have ‘rescued’ Aristide from immediate danger that night, it may well have been from the danger of imminent assassination planned by people working on behalf of the French embassy.
But an overly literal version of this abduction scenario has its problems too. During the last week of February, although he called on the population to remain vigilant, Aristide doesn’t appear to have made well-developed plans to defend Port-au-Prince against Philippe’s little group of insurgents. Aristide chose to spend the weekend of 28/29 February at his suburban house in Tabarre, rather than in the more easily defended National Palace. On the night of 28 February itself, Aristide seems to have taken no steps to mobilise his supporters to protect his house against the prospect of imminent attack. At some point during the night of 28 February, it seems that Aristide or someone close to Aristide dismissed at least some of his Haitian security guards. He then chose to spend the rest of that night alone, and mainly on the phone, trying to talk a way out of the crisis. Some time after the time Moreno and his Delta-Force escort arrived at Aristide’s house, around 4am, it appears that Aristide was induced to accept what was already a fait accompli, and had bowed to inflexible Franco-US demands that he resign before dawn. According to one of his Haitian security guards, Casimir Chariot, the men who accompanied Moreno ‘were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces. These were not people who came with handcuffs to handcuff the president. These were men who came to assure the security of the delegation. It was all done very calmly.’ When Aristide was escorted out of the house by Moreno a little later, around 5am, although it’s not clear that he expected to be taken straight to the airport ? neither he nor his wife Mildred took any belongings with them, apart from the president’s briefcase and the small overnight bag that Mildred always took with her on trips between the Palace and Tabarre ? it seems that he was at least prepared to join the US ambassador at an early morning press conference to explain the situation to the nation.
Was Foley right, then, when he insisted on the eve of his own departure from Haiti (in August 2005), that Aristide’s claim to have been kidnapped was a simple fabrication?
He was not kidnapped. He is lying. He asked me to call him. He asked for the help of the United States [...] He begged me – everyone knows Washington does not keep secrets, there are always leaks to the press – he begged me “no leaks, please. If this news is known, I run the risk of not being able to get to the airport. If people in my entourage know that I am getting ready to leave, I will have difficulty.” Afterwards, certain members of his security staff were sent on phoney missions so they would not be around. In Tabarre, where “chimères” mounted barricades every night, they were asked to leave that night. There were many phone calls to friends to inform them of his departure and to invite some to join him. All this is to say that it is a big lie.
As we’ll see in a moment, some of the circumstantial details of Foley’s account do appear to be correct. By around 3 or 4am the morning of 29 February, it seems as if Aristide had indeed ‘agreed’, if not to leave Haiti, at least to participate in a process that could easily lead to his expulsion from the country.
Around 24 hours later, on Monday 1 March, when an exhausted and semi-coherent Aristide was himself given the chance to explain what had happened, he told CNN that he’d been the victim of ‘modern kidnapping’. He said he’d fallen prey to a ‘modern coup d’état’, one based more on the imminent threat of violence than the literal use of force. ‘I was told that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I better leave. And under a kind of diplomatic cover, they talked to me. And military talked to me. American agents talked to me. Haitian agents talked to me. And I finally realized it was true. We were going to have bloodshed. And when I asked how many people may get killed, they said thousands may get killed [...] They told me in a clear and blunt way that thousands of people will get killed once they start. So I had to do my best to avoid that bloodshed. They used [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to push me out. That’s why I call it again and again a coup d’état.’ CNN’s Anderson Cooper pressed him again on this point, later in the same programme:
[Cooper] Are you saying that you wish you were still ? that if it was up to you, you would still be on the ground in Haiti, that you did not leave of your own free will? [Aristide]: Exactly that. [...]. [Cooper]: Mr. Aristide, I am having trouble reconciling the two statements, the statements that you have made and the statement the US government has made through Secretary Colin Powell, who, again, has said that you were not kidnapped, that we, the United States, did not force you on to the airplane, that you went on to the airplane willingly. And they say that is the truth. You say ? your story is categorically the opposite of that. [Aristide]: Of course, because I am telling you the truth.
A few days later, when Aristide provided (via a concealed cell phone) what would prove to be his most detailed account of what happened on 28/29 February, he again emphasised the immediate threat of violence, reinforced by de-facto US military control, as the decisive factor. It’s worth quoting this hastily translated account almost in full:
The 28th of February, at night, suddenly, American military personnel who were already all over Port-au-Prince descended on my house in Tabarre to tell me first that all the American security agents who have contracts with the Haitian government only have two options. Either they leave immediately to go to the United States, or they fight to die. Secondly, they told me the remaining 25 of the American security agents hired by the Haitian government who were to come in on the 29th of February as reinforcements were under interdiction, prevented from coming. Thirdly, they told me the foreigners and Haitian terrorists alike, loaded with heavy weapons, were already in position to open fire on Port-au-Prince. And right then, the Americans precisely stated that they will kill thousands of people and it will be a bloodbath. That the attack is ready to start, and when the first bullet is fired nothing will stop them and nothing will make them wait until they take over, therefore the mission is to take me dead or alive.
At that time I told the Americans that my first preoccupation was to save the lives of those thousands of people tonight. As far as my own life is concerned, whether I am alive or whether I am dead, that is not what’s important. As much as I was trying to use diplomacy, the more the pressure was being intensified for the Americans to start the attack. In spite of that, I took the risk of slowing down the death machine to verify the degree of danger, the degree of bluff or the degree of intimidation.
It was more serious than a bluff. The National Palace was surrounded by white men armed up to their teeth. The Tabarre area ? the residence ? was surrounded by foreigners armed to their teeth. The airport of Port-au-Prince was already under the control of these men. After a last evaluation I made during a meeting with the person in charge of Haitian security in Port-au-Prince, and the person in charge of American security, the truth was clear. There was going to be a bloodbath because we were already under an illegal foreign occupation which was ready to drop bodies on the ground, to spill blood, and then kidnap me dead or alive.
That meeting took place at 3 a.m. Faced with this tragedy, I decided to ask, “What guarantee do I have that there will not be a bloodbath if I decided to leave?”
In reality, all this diplomatic gymnastics did not mean anything because these military men responsible for the kidnapping operation had already assumed the success of their mission. What was said was done. This diplomacy, plus the forced signing of the letter of resignation, was not able to cover the face of the kidnapping.
Now in principle the difference between Aristide’s ‘truth’ and Foley’s ‘big lie’ shouldn’t be too difficult for the world to understand, since it is simply the difference between freedom and compulsion. Foley is only entitled to say that Aristide freely ‘agreed to leave’ Haiti the night of 28/29 February if he can explain how exactly an agreement prompted by the threat of an imminent bloodbath can be described a free and voluntary one. Aristide ‘chose’ not to commit suicide, and he decided not to lead his supporters into a war that they were ill-prepared to fight. This was indeed a decision, of a kind. But as Patrick Elie insists ‘it was still a kidnapping, there’s no doubt about that. Somebody came up with an apt comparison: it’s as if you push someone back into their house, then you nail all the windows shut, and throw a Molotov cocktail inside. Then when he comes running out of the door you say he came out “of his own free will.” That’s ridiculous. He could have stayed inside and died. Instead he came out, ok ? but it certainly wasn’t of his own free will.’
In 2004 as in 1991, Aristide refused to engage his enemies directly on their chosen military terrain. But at the point where diplomatic push came to military shove, the night of 28/29 February, there was at least one thing that Aristide remained free to do: he could still oblige his enemies to drive out to Tabarre and burn down his house.
III The Background
To make proper sense of what happened exactly on the night of 28 February we first need to bear in mind some of the factors that had brought Aristide’s government to the edge of this precipice.
1. To begin with, we need to remember who was behind the immediate threat of a bloodbath. We need to remember that the military insurgency led by Philippe and long-time CIA asset and ex-FRAPH commander Jodel Chamblain was working in close cooperation with the so-called ‘democratic opposition’ led by unelectable politicians like Evans Paul, Serge Gilles, Himmler Rébu and other members of the US- and French-backed ‘Convergence Démocratique’, along with leading figures in various US-backed ‘civil society’ organisations like Andy Apaid’s ‘Group of 184’. Aristide’s political party Fanmi Lavalas had overwhelmed its rivals in the elections of 2000, and it’s obvious that the sole political function of these opponents was to embroil the government in futile negotiations for a settlement that they were never prepared to accept. From 2001 to 2004 they rejected more than twenty internationally-mediated resolutions to the deadlock, and on each occasion the US and the rest of the international community invoked the government’s ‘failure to reach an agreement with the opposition’ as a pretext for withholding desperately needed loans and aid.
In several radio broadcasts and other recent interviews, Guy Philippe has described the nature of his close financial and operational collaboration with the US-backed political opposition to Aristide in compelling detail. Towards the end of 2004 Philippe’s less diplomatic colleague ex-corporal Ravix Rémissainthe began making still more incriminating allegations about their erstwhile political associates, and eventually paid for his indiscretion with his life. According to Ravix and Philippe, all of the most notorious incidents that opposition leaders tried to pin on a tyrannical government ? the attack on the National Palace 17 December 2001, the hit-and-run raids in and around Belladère in 2002-2003, the sabotage of the Boutilliers radio transmitters on 13 January 2004, etc. ? were in fact commissioned by these very opposition leaders themselves. To pretend that the US and France were not in effective control of this insurgency, if only through the mediation of long-time clients like Evans Paul and Serge Gilles, would be hopelessly naïve. It would be still more naïve to assume that such an insurgency could have been prepared and organised over a couple of years, mainly in the heavily policed US-client state the Dominican Republic, without the knowledge, approval and encouragement of the US itself.
In late January 2004, CARICOM helped to broker the latest in a long series of diplomatic solutions to the ‘deadlock’ between Aristide and his political opponents. As usual, the deal was immediately accepted by Aristide but rejected by his opponents. There can be little doubt that the insurgency which began in Gonaïves on 5 February 2004 was timed in order to distract attention from CARICOM’s awkwardly straightforward approach to the impasse: power-sharing and a further round of elections. It’s also clear that the timing of the insurgency’s most significant operation, the assault on Cap-Haïtien on Sunday 22 February, was likewise determined so as to scuttle the last diplomatic attempt to break the deadlock ? yet another power-sharing proposal, this time proposed by Roger Noriega and vigorously endorsed by Colin Powell himself. This deal too was immediately accepted by Aristide but again rejected by the opposition, leaving the latter, as Robinson puts it, ‘in the embarrassing position of having to reject the president’s acceptance of its own offer.’