By Kim Ives and Ansel Herz
US officials led a far-reaching international campaign aimed at keeping former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide exiled in South Africa, rendering him a virtual prisoner there for the last seven years, according to secret US State Department cables.
The cables show that high-level US and UN officials even discussed a politically motivated prosecution of Aristide to prevent him from “gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
The secret cables, made available to the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté by WikiLeaks, show how the political defeat of Aristide and his Lavalas movement has been the central pillar of US policy toward the Caribbean nation over the last two US administrations, even though—or perhaps because—US officials understood that he was the most popular political figure in Haiti.
They also reveal how US officials and their diplomatic counterparts from France, Canada, the UN and the Vatican tried to vilify and ostracize the Haitian political leader.
For the Vatican, Aristide was an “active proponent of voodoo.” For Washington, he was “dangerous to Haiti’s democratic consolidation,” according to the secret US cables.
Aristide was overthrown in a bloody February 2004 coup supported by Washington and fomented by right-wing paramilitary forces and the Haitian elite. In the aftermath of the coup, more than 3,000 people were killed and thousands of supporters of Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas political party were jailed.
The United States maintained publicly that Aristide resigned in the face of a ragtag force of former Haitian army soldiers rampaging in Haiti’s north. But Aristide called his escort by a US Navy SEAL team on his flight into exile “a modern-day kidnapping.”
Two months later, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was established, a 9,000-strong UN occupation force that still oversees Latin America’s first independent nation.
Aristide has spoken forcefully against the UN occupation, particularly in his 2010 year-end letter to the Haitian people. “We cannot forget the $5 billion which has already been spent for MINUSTAH over these past six years,” he wrote. “Anybody can see how many houses, hospitals, and schools that wasted money could have built for the victims” of the January 12, 2010, earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions.
Such positions are major reasons Washington fought to get and keep Aristide out of Haiti, the cables make clear. “A premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the [Haitian] government...vulnerable to...resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces—reversing gains of the last two years,” wrote US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in an October 1, 2008, cable. MINUSTAH “is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG [US government] policy interests in Haiti.”
At a high-level meeting five years ago, top US and UN officials discussed how the “Aristide Movement Must Be Stopped,” according to an August 2, 2006, cable. It described how former Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet, then chief of MINUSTAH, “urged US legal action against Aristide to prevent the former president from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
At Mulet’s request, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki “to ensure that Aristide remained in South Africa.”
President Obama and Kofi Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, also intervened to urge Pretoria to keep Aristide in South Africa. The secret cables report that Aristide’s return to Haiti would be a “disaster,” according to the Vatican, and “catastrophic,” according to the French.
But the regional and Haitian view was quite different. US Ambassador James Foley admitted in a confidential March 22, 2005, cable that an August 2004 poll “showed that Aristide was still the only figure in Haiti with a favorability rating above 50%.”
The Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, apparently referring to Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture’s kidnapping and imprisonment in the Jura mountains in 1802, warned “that a perceived ‘Banishing Policy’ has racial and historical overtones in the Caribbean that reminds inhabitants of the region of slavery and past abuse.”
Keeping the Pressure On
After Aristide left Jamaica for exile in South Africa on May 30, 2004, the US government worked overtime to keep him out of Haiti and even the hemisphere, even though the Haitian constitution and international law stipulate that every Haitian citizen has the right to be in his homeland.
When Dominican President Leonel Fernández suggested at a hemispheric conference eight months after the coup that Aristide should return and play a role in Haiti’s political future, the United States reacted angrily, saying in a cable that Fernández had been “wrong in advocating the inclusion in the process of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.”
The US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic “admonished” Fernández “during a pull-aside at a social event.”
“Aristide had led a violent gang involved in narcotics trafficking and had squandered any credibility he formerly may have had,” US Ambassador Hertell told him, according to a November 16, 2004, cable.
“Nobody has given me any information about that,” Fernández replied.
The embassy followed up with a series of aggressive meetings insisting that the Dominican government renounce its support for Aristide. The meetings included a sit-down with the Dominican president specifically on the subject of Haiti with the British, Canadian, French, Spanish and US ambassadors.
No charges were ever filed against Aristide for drug trafficking, although the United States “spent, literally, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars…trying to pin something, anything on President Aristide,” Ira Kurzban, Aristide’s lawyer, told Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints in July. “They’ve had an ATF investigation, a tax investigation, a drug investigation, and now apparently some kind of corruption investigation.... The reality is they’ve come up with nothing because there is nothing.”
According to a report in Haïti Liberté, other sources say that a US legal team is still angling to prosecute Aristide.
In 2005, the Fanmi Lavalas political party planned large demonstrations to mark Aristide’s July 15 birthday and call for his return. The US Ambassador to France, Craig Stapleton, met with the French diplomatic official Gilles Bienvenu in Paris to discuss the issue.
“Bienvenu stated that the GOF [Government of France] shared our analysis of the implications of an Aristide return to Haiti, terming the likely repercussions ‘catastrophic,’ ” Stapleton wrote in a July 1, 2005, cable. “Initially expressing caution when asked about France demarching the SARG [conveying the message to the South African government], Bienvenu noted that Aristide was not a prisoner in South Africa and that such an action could ‘create difficulties.’ ”
Stapleton swiftly overcame Bienvenu’s reluctance. Bienvenu agreed to relay US and French “shared concerns” to the South African government, saying that “as a country desiring to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, South Africa could not afford to be involved in any way with the destabilization of another country.”
The Ambassador went even further: “Bienvenu speculated on exactly how Aristide might return, seeing a possible opportunity to hinder him in the logistics of reaching Haiti,” Stapleton wrote. “If Aristide traveled commercially, Bienvenu reasoned, he would likely need to transit certain countries in order to reach Haiti. Bienvenu suggested a demarche to Caricom [Caribbean Community] countries by the US and EU to warn them against facilitating any travel or other plans Aristide might have. He specifically recommended speaking to the Dominican Republic, which could be directly implicated in a return attempt.”
Five days later in Ottawa, two Canadian diplomatic officials met with the US Embassy personnel. “‘We are on the same sheet’ with regards to Aristide,” one Canadian affirmed, according to a July 6, 2005, cable. “Even before these recent rumors, she said, Canada had a clear position in opposition to the return of Aristide.”
Canada shared the message with “all parties...especially the Caricom countries,” as well with South Africa.
Vatican Blocks Post-Quake Return of Aristide
The earthquake that killed tens of thousands and destroyed many parts of the city also threatened to upend the established political order, worrying diplomats.
US Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) met with a Vatican official in the days after the earthquake to discuss Church losses and responses.
A January 20, 2010, cable reports, “In discussions with DCM over the past few days, senior Vatican officials said they were dismayed about media reports that deposed Haitian leader—and former priest—Jean Bertrand Aristide wished to return to Haiti.... The Vatican's Assesor (deputy chief of staff equivalent), Msgr. Peter Wells, said Aristide's presence would distract from the relief efforts and could become destabilizing.”
Then the Vatican’s Undersecretary for Relations with States, Msgr. Ettore Balestrero, conferred with Archbishop Bernardito Auza in Haiti, who “agreed emphatically that Aristide's return would be a disaster.” Balestrero “then conveyed Auza's views to Archbishop Greene in South Africa, and asked him also to look for ways to get this message convincingly to Aristide. DCM suggested that Greene also convey this message to the SAG [South African government].”
The Vatican’s position on Aristide’s return was augured in earlier cables. In November 2003, three months before the bloody February 2004 coup against Aristide, a US political officer met with the Vatican’s MFA Caribbean Affairs Office Director Giorgio Lingua. He said that “effecting change in Haiti should be easier than in Cuba,” reported US Chargé d'Affaires Brent Hardt in a November 14, 2003, cable. “Unlike Castro, Lingua observed, Aristide is not ideologically motivated. ‘This is one person—not a system,’ he added.”
Shortly after the coup, on March 5, 2004, US Ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson wrote a cable reporting that the Holy See’s Deputy Foreign Minister had “no regret at Aristide's departure, noting that the former priest had been an active proponent of voodoo.”
A Hero’s Welcome
Aristide ultimately returned to Haiti on March 18, 2011, despite personal calls by President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to stop him. They argued he would disrupt Haiti’s imminent elections.
“The problem is exclusion, and the solution is inclusion,” Aristide said during a brief return speech at the airport after landing. Then he made his only reference, however oblique, to that week’s elections from which his party was barred: “The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is the exclusion of the majority.”
Two days later, the second round of Haiti’s elections went off relatively smoothly, but with historically low voter participation. Some polling stations in Port-au-Prince were empty, with stacks of ballot sheets piled high, hours before they closed. Less than 24 percent of registered voters went to their polls, according to official statistics. Other observers say the turnout was much less.
On the morning of Aristide’s return in Port-au-Prince, thousands massed outside the airport in an exuberant, spontaneous demonstration. They jogged alongside his motorcade waving Haitian flags and placards bearing Aristide’s visage, then scaled the fence surrounding Aristide’s home and poured into its yard until there was no room left to move. The crowd even climbed the walls and covered the roof.
Sitting in an SUV just twenty feet from the door to his hastily repaired but mostly empty house, Aristide and his family waited until a crew of Haitian policeman managed to clear what resembled a pathway through the crowd. First his wife and two daughters emerged from the car and dashed inside the home.
Finally Aristide, diminutive in a sharp blue suit, stood up in the car doorway and waved. The crowd roared in excitement and surged around him. The path to the door vanished. His security grabbed him and shouldered their way through the sea of humanity until they got him to the house’s door, through which he popped like a cork, clutching his glasses in his hands.
After a coup, kidnapping, exile, diplomatic intrigue and his rapturous welcome, Aristide was finally home.