Did he Jump or was he Pushed?
By Peter Hallward, author, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, 2008.
In late February 2004, France, the U.S. and a few other old "friends of Haiti" called on the country’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign.
During his last few days in office, these countries threatened Aristide with a "bloodbath" if he chose to serve out the remainder of his term in office. By early 2004, Haiti’s oldest friends had done everything to make such a threat look imminent. Even before he returned to office in 2001, they went to considerable lengths to promote both a political and a paramilitary opposition that adopted the elimination of Aristide as their 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 February 28, 2004, the area of the country that remained under the government’s control had shrunk to little more than 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 made it clear that it would only intervene if Aristide stepped down.
With his back to the wall, did Aristide choose to save his skin and accept a U.S. offer for safe passage to a friendly third country? Or, 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?
In my opinion it’s blindingly obvious that Aristide was pushed out by 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.
The "Big Lie"
The U.S. government’s account of what happened on February 28 is pretty straightforward. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley 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 Phil-ippe’s small group of ex-army rebels started to overrun Haiti’s police stations, Aristide realised his "bandit" militias were no match for their ruthless firepower.
Powell and Foley say that on that evening Aristide sent a desperate appeal for help to the U.S. embassy. Foley says Aristide asked him for a way out that would "guarantee his security" and "protect his property."1
According to Foley and his versatile deputy Luis Moreno, Aristide made a perfectly free and voluntary choice. "He decided himself to leave. He feared he faced death if he could not get out."2 Therefore, the U.S. resolved to mount a last-minute operation to save Aristide’s life.3
No doubt the U.S. could have endorsed the Caribbean Community’s urgent appeal to the UN for a hundred or so peacekeepers, or, they could have instructed Philippe’s men to lay down their M16s and return to their U.S.-sanctioned exile in the Dominican Republic. But as Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson explained, rather than discourage Philippe and his "ragtag band," Foley preferred instead to talk "with President Aristide; he 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."4 As far as the world’s most powerful democracy was concerned it was clearly Aristide, the elected president of Haiti, rather than Philippe, the paramilitary insurgent, who needed to leave the country.
The U.S. government quickly arranged for a plane that took off from a U.S.-occupied Port-au-Prince airport around 6:15 am, February 29. Before he left, Aristide was induced to sign a letter which, as far as his U.S. minders were concerned, appeared to provide constitutional grounds for a democratic transition, saying: "If my resignation prevents the shedding of blood, I agree to leave."5 (See "Aristide's so-called Resignation letter" and "Taken for a Ride.")
The U.S. says that Aristide chose the safety of the Central African Republic (CAR). 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 March 1, "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 going to the CAR was "his choice."
Colin Powell also firmly rejected Aristide’s insistence that he had been kidnapped by U.S. troops:
"Aristide wanted to discuss with our Ambassador the possibility of departure and he had several questions.... Aristide... talked about ...protection of his personal property,... and would he have some choice as to where he was going....
We gave him…positive answers.... and he…said that it was his decision ...that he should leave."6
As for the protection of Aristide’s property, Powell’s "positive answer" is easily verified. There was an immediate withdrawal of all security from Aristide’s house, thereby allowing it to be comprehensively looted and trashed for several days. (Back in 1994, by contrast, the U.S. didn’t just protect the property of the dictatorial general Raoul Cédras—who had ousted Aristide—they actually rented a couple of his houses for several months).
Powell’s spokesman reasserted the same basic line "There was no kidnapping, there was no coup, there were no threats." Instead, he said, "we ended up rescuing him by taking him out of the country in the face of almost certain violence."7
Foley too insisted that Aristide’s claim to have been kidnapped was a simple fabrication:
"He was not kidnapped. He is lying.... He asked for the help of the United States... He begged me—everyone knows Washington does not keep secrets.... All this is to say that it is a big lie."8
Broadly speaking, the mainstream press accepted, and still accepts, this official U.S. explanation. But leaving aside the 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 awkward problems with the U.S. version of events.
All through February 2004, Aristide repeatedly insisted on serving out the remainder of his term in office, and he never seems to have told anyone, up until midnight or 1 am on February 29, that he would consider leaving office before his mandate ended in February 2006. The last time his chief legal counsellor, Ira Kurzban, spoke with him was on the morning of February 28, and there was no hint that Aristide was toying with the idea of resignation.9 Late that night, members of Aristide’s entourage confirmed arrangements for interviews at the National Palace the following day. And, Jamaican Prime Minister and CARI-COM chairman P.J.Patterson, who was "in touch with Aristide until very late Saturday night February 28," confirmed that "Nothing that was said to us indicated that the president was contemplating a resignation."10 Without exception, Aristide’s closest allies and confidants all testify to the same point.11
It’s still more puzzling that Aristide 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. As soon as he arrived he was kept under house arrest and blocked from virtually all access to the media or the telephone.12 Powell and Roger Noriega said Aristide’s "first choice" had been South Africa, but that President Thabo Mbeki—Aristide’s staunchest international ally—suddenly reneged on a promise to grant temporary asylum. The New York Times and other papers dutifully reported this assertion. However, Aristide and his pilot and confidant Frantz Gabriel (who accompanied the Aristides into exile) insist that they never asked South Africa for asylum. Gabriel says when led onto the plane, Aristide "had no idea where he was going."13 On March 2, Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, said Aristide never requested asylum, and that South Africa had "not denied him amnesty…as alleged by the U.S. State Department and The New York Times."14
A Surprise Attack?
Aristide’s old friend and counsellor Randall Robinson insisted that
"Aristide did not resign. He was kidnapped.... Had he resigned, we wouldn’t need blacked out windows and blocked communications and military taking him away at gunpoint…. He was abducted by the U.S.: a democratically elected president, abducted by the U.S. in… an American-induced coup."15
This explanation is certainly much closer to reality than the absurd story invented by Foley, Powell and Moreno.
On March 1, Aristide 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...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.... 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."16
A few days later, Aristide provided (via a concealed cell phone) what was his most detailed account of what happened on February 28/29:
"The 28th of February, at night, suddenly, American military personnel who were already all over Port-au-Prince descended on my house.... 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....
It was more serious than a bluff. The National Palace was surrounded by white men armed up to their teeth. The...residence was surrounded by foreigners armed to their teeth. The airport...was already under the control of these men.... 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..... The forced signing of the letter of resignation, was not able to cover the face of the kidnapping."17
Later, on March 8, 2004,
"Aristide said he had been told by the U.S. ambassador to Haiti that he would be taken to a press conference in Port-au-Prince on February 29, but was instead driven to the airport. ‘They put me in a car and I found myself at the airport.’"18
Frantz Gabriel backed up this version of events:
"Luis Moreno... knocked at the door of Aristide’s...house. I opened the door and saw with him there with two special operations guys—obviously military ... carrying some serious hardware .... Moreno said ‘we’re going to have a news conference at the embassy.’ Then we were led down the steps, and in the compound there were only U.S. troops, and a couple more Delta-type guys. Aristide, Mildred his wife and I were taken manu militari into Moreno’s embassy car....
"There were around a dozen U.S. cars lined up across the street....We all set off in a single convoy.... We got to the airport at dawn.... Foley was there too. We were led onto the plane, along with... around twenty U.S. troops."19
The difference between Aristide’s "truth" and Foley’s "big lie" shouldn’t be too difficult to understand, since it is simply the difference between freedom and compulsion. Foley can only say that Aristide freely "agreed to leave" Haiti if he can explain how an agreement prompted by the threat of an imminent bloodbath can be described as free and voluntary. As Patrick Elie insists
"it was still a kidnapping, there’s no doubt about that. It’s as if you push someone...into their house, then you nail all the windows shut, and throw a Molotov cocktail inside. Then, when he comes running out..., 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."20
1. Peter Slevin and Mike Allen, "Former Ally’s Shift in Stance Left Haiti Leader No Recourse," Washington Post, March 1, 2004.
2. Cited in David Adams, "Aristide’s Last Days," Saint Petersburg Times, February 28, 2006.
3. Cited in Adams, Op. cit.
4. Amy Goodman, "Colin Powell’s Former Chief of Staff Col. Wilkerson on Haiti: Defends U.S. Role in Ouster of President," Democracy Now! November 22, 2005.
5. Peter Slevin and Scott Wilson, "Aristide’s Departure: The U.S. Account," Washington Post, March 3, 2004.
6. Colin Powell, "Powell Responds to Aristide Allegations," CNN, Mar. 1, 2004.
7. Richard Boucher, "U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing," March 4, 2004. When CARICOM persisted in April with its call for an investigation into what happened on February 29, Colin Powell was curt: "I don’t think any purpose would be served by an inquiry." ("Powell Rejects Probe into Aristide’s Departure as Haiti Sets Vote," AFP, April 5, 2004). In a routine but revealing demonstration of the main institutional purpose of the so-called ‘Security Council,’ the U.S. and France told CARICOM and the African Union that they would veto any attempt to launch an investigation through the UN. (Thalif Deen, "U.S., France Block UN Probe of Aristide Ouster," Inter Press Service, April 13, 2004).
8. "Speech by Former Ambassador James B.Foley," Port-au-Prince, Aug.12, 2005.
9. Ira Kurzban, letter, March 4, 2007.
10. Nancy San Martin, "Rebels Get Out; Marines Roll In," Miami Herald, March 4, 2004.
11. See in particular Robinson, An Unbroken Agony, 75-76, 82-83, 104-105.
12. "Aristide Can’t Use Telephone," Miami Herald, Mar.3, 2004; Jeff Koinange, "Aristide’s Guest Privileges Pared in Exile," CNN, Mar.6, 2004.
13. Amy Goodman, "Aristide and his Body-guard describe U.S. Role in his Ouster," Democracy Now! March 16, 2004.
Interview with senior member of Aristide’s Steele Foundation security, March 21, 2007.
14. "South Africa Rejects Washington’s Claim Aristide Was Denied Asylum," Democracy Now! March 2, 2004.
15. Amy Goodman, "President Aristide Says ‘I Was Kidnapped,’" Democracy Now! March 1, 2004.
16. Interview with Aristide, CNN Tonight, March 1, 2004.
17. Aristide, "Aristide Details Last Moments in Haiti, Calls For Stop to Bloodshed in First Address to Haitian People From Exile," Pacific News Service, March 5, 2004. news.pacificnews.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=68ea078d4f916517e92ee1c336d32285
18. Daniel Balint-Kurti, "Aristide Insists He’s still Haiti Leader," AP, Mar.8, 2004.
19. This transcription is edited and compiled from interviews I did with Frantz Gabriel in Pétionville, January 2007, and interviews that Gabriel did with Crowing Rooster in Miami, June 2006.
20. Interview, Patrick Elie, March 3, 2007.
Source: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the newspaper Haiti Liberté, Oct.-Nov. 2007.
The above article is from Press for Conversion! magazine, Issue
#63 (November 2008)
Previous issues of this
Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade publication include:
#62 "Putting the Aid in Aiding and Abetting:
CIDA's Agents of Regime Change in Haiti's 2004 Coup"
#61 "CIDA's Key Role in Haiti's 2004 Coup d’état:
Funding Regime Change, Dictatorship and Human Rights Atrocities, one Haitian 'NGO' at a Time"
#60 "A Very Canadian Coup d’état in Haiti:
The Top 10 Ways that Canada’s Government helped the 2004 Coup and its Reign of Terror"
Subscribe, order a hard copy or back issues