America’s Sad History with Haiti

America’s Sad History with Haiti


The Haitians have a saying in their native créole language: Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li. “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”

Freed of the powerful grip of the Duvaliers in 1986, and despite a dysfunctional system, little by little, the Haitians undertook the difficult work of rebuilding their nation into a more democratic place from within.

They formed trade unions, created independent radio stations, initiated literacy programs, and built silos to store their grain so they could wait for better prices before selling their crops.

Meanwhile, a quiet, small Haitian man who spoke eight languages and who had declared capitalism a “mortal sin” was espousing a brand of liberation theology too radical for the Catholic Church that had ordained him.

In 1988, the Catholic Church expelled Jean Bertrand Aristide for preaching class warfare in a move that, ironically, made him far more powerful.

Undaunted, Aristide, called affectionately by the diminutive “Titide,” opened a medical clinic, ran a children’s shelter, and continued to speak to the people.

As Haiti headed into its first internationally supervised election, the US was banking on Marc Bazin, now their chosen candidate for president. But the majority of the Haitians saw Bazin as “America’s Man” and refused to support him.

The strongest leftist candidate, however, was considered lackluster, and the other candidates were too little known to win.

On Oct. 16, 1990, just two months before the elections were to be held, Aristide entered the race. He called his movement and its followers the Lavalas, a créole word for torrents of water that rushed down gullies, sweeping away everything in their path. He summed up his platform in three words: “participation, transparency, justice.”

Predictably, the US government, then headed by President George H. W. Bush, was disconcerted. One businessman probably summed up a lot of businessmen’s thoughts when he called Aristide “a cross between Fidel and the Ayatollah.”

Just before the election, Ambassador Andrew Young, at the request (he said) of former President Jimmy Carter, tried to persuade Aristide to sign a letter accepting Bazin as president if Bazin should win, in the hopes of forestalling a violent reaction from Aristide’s followers. William Blum, in his book Killing Hope, noted the Bush White House likely had a hand in this as well.

Hope, Then Tragedy

On Dec. 16, 1990, in the country’s first internationally supervised election, Aristide won with over two-thirds of the vote, proving the Lavalas worthy of their name. The margin also gave him the largest majority of any democratically elected leader in the Western Hemisphere.

But in a sad parallel to some recent US elections, when the time came to vote for the legislature and other offices, turnout was light. An opposition-dominated legislature then thwarted much of the legislation that Aristide proposed.

Still, Aristide upset the status quo. He initiated “programs in literacy, public health, and agrarian reform,” Blum wrote. Aristide also sought to increase the minimum wage; he asked for a freeze on the prices of basic necessities; and he created a public works program to generate jobs.

Aristide also criticized the business class, accusing some of the Haitian elite of corruption. He also sent a youth group from Haiti on a friendly visit to Haiti’s neighbor to the west, Castro’s Cuba.

Aristide, who had survived assassination attempts in the past, created a private force that he could trust. He further antagonized the military by making temporary appointments to key positions rather than permanent ones. He hoped this would encourage good behavior, but instead it rankled those stuck in tenuous situations.

But perhaps Aristide’s greatest affront to the military was to crack down on smuggling and drug-running, which were rampant in Haiti. According to Robert and Nancy Heinl in their book Written in Blood, Aristide’s actions “were putting a dent in many officers’ life styles.”

Janus-faced America

Any student of real history can guess what happened next. The military overthrew Aristide a short nine months into his five-year presidential term.

And as Blum notes, while there is no direct evidence that the CIA or the United States supported the coup, given the CIA’s role in training and supporting the Haitian military, the coup could hardly have come as a surprise.

Bob Shacochis supports Blum’s suspicions in his book The Immaculate Invasion, where he wrote that President George H.W. Bush “swiftly announced that the coup would not stand, then just as quickly receded into embarrassed silence when informed by his staff that his own crew in Port-au-Prince not only had foreknowledge of the putsch but had allowed it to advance without a word.”

Shacochis decried how America had been essentially “Janus-faced” toward Haiti due to a the split between those in the US willing to support a true democracy, no matter how messy, and those whose knee-jerk reaction was to decry the leftist president, despite the fact that “the Haitians democratically chose Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the only Haitian president who ever attempted to lead his people out of darkness; the only Haitian chief of state who seemed to display an ideology beyond self.”

Initially, only the Vatican recognized the new government. The United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) and US still supported Aristide. An embargo on oil and weapons was ordered, if not fully supported.

Once again, the desperate Haitians, suffering under yet another military regime, took to their boats and headed for Americas shores. The US created a temporary camp at the Guantanamo base in Cuba to house some of the intercepted refugees. But it was clear from the start this solution would not hold.

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich elites and the poor peasants in Haiti bordered on the obscene.

As the Heinls’ described, “To provide additional generating capacity at Péligre [a hydro-electric project], water was being diverted …, further crippling agriculture, but in Pétionville the elite dined well off French wines and Norwegian salmon.”

The rich eschewed the unreliable public utilities and turned to private generators. And while the elite “could not avoid traveling on the ruined roads whose upkeep they refused to pay taxes for,” they bought four-wheel drive vehicles to navigate the rocky terrain instead — an option not available to the masses, the Heinls noted.

The UN reluctantly began talking of the need for a full-scale military invasion to return Aristide to power. By this time, US voters had ditched Bush Sr. in favor of Bill Clinton, a man who, on the face of it, seemed more sympathetic to the restoration of democracy in Haiti, despite the fact that quickly after the election, he vowed to continue Bush’s Haitian anti-immigration policies.

As President Clinton sought an agreement between Haitian leaders and the U.N. to restore Aristide for the remaining portion of his presidential term, a paid CIA informer named Emmanuel Constant was working with FRAPH, a paramilitary organization — a death squad, essentially – he had formed in Haiti, to prevent Aristide’s return and to terrorize the ousted president’s former supporters.

Constant led an anti-American demonstration at the dock in Port-au-Prince when Clinton dispatched the first US troops seeking to facilitate Aristide’s reinstatement. In the face of Constant’s demonstration, the administration lost its nerve, and the American troops turned back.

Trashing Aristide

At this point, an all-out effort was launched domestically in the US by right-wing elements to keep President Clinton from authorizing another landing. Aristide was accused of inciting his followers to violence and of being mentally deranged.

A serious, if dubious, charge was made in an effort to turn the liberals in Congress against Aristide. A video was surfaced ostensibly showing Aristide urging his supporters to “necklace” opponents, i.e., to put a burning tire around their necks. But what did Aristide really say?

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, entered the following translation into the record, but added the caveat that the only tape he had seen had been obviously edited, so he was not certain this was fully representative of what Aristide had said. The State Department’s translation of the incendiary section read as follows:

“You are watching all macoute activities throughout the country. We are watching and praying. We are watching and praying. If we catch one, do not fail to give him what he deserves. What a nice tool! What a nice instrument! [loud cheers from crowd] What a nice device! [crowd cheers] It is a pretty one. It is elegant, attractive, splendorous, graceful, and dazzling. It smells good. Wherever you go, you feel like smelling it. [crowd cheers] It is provided for by the Constitution, which bans macoutes from the political scene.”

Combined with the spliced in shots of burning tires, this passage clearly sounded like Aristide was urging people to punish the macoutes in a violent way. But that was out of character with other parts of the speech, where he said:

“Your tool is in your hands. Your instrument is in your hands. Your Constitution is in your hand. Do not fail to give him what he deserves. [loud cheers from crowd]. That device is in your hands. Your trowel is in your hands. The bugle is in your hands. The Constitution is in your hands. Do not fail to give him what he deserves.”

In that section, clearly the law was the weapon Aristide was urging his supporters to employ.

Later, an Internet poster who claimed to be present during this speech vigorously denied Aristide had approved of necklacing:

“I was present at that famous speech when Aristide returned from the USA. The speech was taped and cut and spliced to make it appear that Aristide condoned…even encouraged necklacing; such *was not* the case. Aristide said that he understood peoples’ desire to necklace, but he emphasized that it was positively immoral.

“He said words to this effect: I understand your desire to smell their burning flesh; but that is not the way of Jesus. We will win without violence; we will overcome. The anti-Aristide people spliced the tape to make it come out this way: I desire to smell their burning flesh. We will win with violence; we will overcome!”

CIA Report

That same day that Harkin entered the text into the record, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, had invited longtime CIA analyst Brian Latell to Capitol Hill to talk about the agency’s report on Aristide’s psychological state.

The report claimed that Aristide was a psychopath, had been treated for depression in a Canadian hospital, and was taking ongoing medication. In other words, he was too unstable to be returned to Haiti.

The problem was, none of that was true.

A Miami Herald investigation found that the hospital the CIA named had no record that Aristide had ever been treated there. Three other facilities in Montreal were investigated, but not one of them had ever treated Aristide.

Aristide had been hospitalized for hepatitis in his teens, but had never been to a hospital for any reason thereafter, and was not taking any medication. No evidence ever surfaced to support Latell’s claims.

Latell also told Congress how peaceful Haiti was under their man, former World Bank executive Marc Bazin, who had been appointed Prime Minister by the people who overthrew Aristide.

But Latell’s claim that there was no systematic or frequent violence against civilians lay in stark contrast to the record observed by human rights groups and others.

“Obviously, we have visited two different countries,” Amnesty International’s program officer for the region said. “That anyone could go to Haiti at that time and not observe repression by the military is absurd.”

Indeed, in Aristide’s absence, FRAPH had gone from heinous to horrific, forcing new members to watch existing members rape and kill people. During the initiation process, the members were forced to participate in the raping and killing.

Why would the CIA want to defend these murders over the leftist Aristide? According to the right-wing Washington Times, intelligence analysts were particularly concerned about Aristide’s opposition to privatizing some industry in Haiti.

And as for that longstanding canard that the CIA only follows orders from the President and never makes policy, the Washington Times reported on Nov. 28, 1995, that “The CIA’s Directorate of Operations … successfully opposed efforts by the White House to take covert action to unseat Haiti’s military leaders to pave the way for restoring Mr. Aristide to office, even though he had been elected in a popular vote in 1990, the sources said. They said such action was deemed not suitable.”

Turning to the Military

President Clinton, unable to persuade the CIA to do his bidding, turned to the military instead; there, at least, he was still recognized as Commander in Chief.

In the wake of the failed landing in 1993 that was intended to reinstitute Aristide, as the violence in Haiti perpetrated by the ruling military junta against its citizens increased, even the Army War College, hardly a liberal outpost, issued a 60-page report decrying America’s timidity in this situation.

Eventually, the trio of former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Sam Nunn and retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell were able to construct an arrangement that would return Aristide to power.

But by then, Aristide had only a year left in his term to serve, and by then, the problems he faced were even greater than the ones he had started with.

In addition, the agreement that brought Aristide back included a promise not to prosecute the coup leaders for their crimes. Forgiveness and reconciliation were the watchwords of the new Aristide administration. Justice was never on the menu.

Still, the public was so enthralled with Aristide that, after he stepped aside and let his hand-appointed prime minister run the country for several years, they voted him enthusiastically back into the presidency in the elections of 2000. This time he managed to serve three full years before being again ousted in a coup.

Aristide’s problems were compounded by the debacle in Florida that put George W. Bush in the White House. The new Bush administration went after leftists in the hemisphere with a vengeance.

Regarding Haiti, the Bush administration blocked loans that had been approved by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). These loans were targeted for projects that would provide health, education, roadwork and clean drinking water.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation was so outraged by this blatant obstructionism that it sued the IDB in US District Court in Washington, D.C. The executive director of the foundation, Todd Howland, railed, “There have been actual deaths linked to the fact that the IDB never disbursed these loans.”

And to add insult to injury, the Haitian government had already paid $5 million in interest for the loan money it wasn’t receiving.

Annoying the French

Aristide made enemies in France as well when he tried to collect on a 200-year-old debt, dating back to when the Haitians won independence from France in a devastating war in which African slaves overthrew their slaveowners.

France remained covetous toward its former colony and demanded the equivalent of $21 billion in reparations. France, which had benefited from Haiti’s slave labor for many years, threatened to invade the country again if the ex-slaves did not pay off their former masters, and Haiti agreed.

In 2003, Aristide convened a four-day international conference to construct a plan to get that money back. France’s response was to ask Aristide to step down.

But the action that may have most directly precipitated Aristide’s final ouster might have been the one Aristide performed on Feb. 7, 2003: he doubled the country’s minimum wage. He raised it from $1 a day to $2.

This action was opposed by an organization of wealthy business leaders called Group 184, led by an American businessman named Andy Apaid, who ran a garment factory in Port-au-Prince. Apaid and Group 184 pressed constantly for Aristide’s removal.

Evidently, the business interests just couldn’t let a liberal leader do right by his people. Not at their expense. As Mark Weisbrot opined in The Nation (among other publications):

“The fix was in: The US Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute (the international arm of the Republican Party) had spent tens of millions of dollars to create and organize an opposition — however small in numbers — and to make Haiti under Aristide ungovernable.

“The whole scenario was strikingly similar to the series of events that led to the coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April 2002. The same US organizations were involved, and the opposition — as in Venezuela — controlled and used the major media as a tool for destabilization.

“And in both cases the coup leaders, joined by Washington, announced to the world that the elected president had ‘voluntarily resigned’ — which later turned out to be false.”

And the 2004 coup against Aristide looked familiar to another infamous plot. It reeked of the operation that removed Jacobo Arbenz from power in Guatemala in 1954. In both cases, word of growing military opposition, headed toward the capital, was trumpeted daily in the media.

In both cases, the powers of that coming military opposition were grossly exaggerated. In both cases, had Arbenz or Aristide chosen to fight, they would likely have been able to hold their ground against the rag-tag forces that didn’t match the hype. But in both cases, neither leader knew this at the time.

Two Faces

Officially, of course, America pronounced that no one who overthrew the democratically elected leader of Haiti in a coup would be recognized as legitimate. But few in Haiti trusted those pronouncements.

As friends of Aristide, African-American activist Randall Robinson and his wife Hazel received a warning of a coming coup, which Robinson detailed in An Unbroken Agony.

On Feb. 28, 2004, National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley called Robinson’s wife Hazel. Smiley was supposed to interview Aristide for his program the following day.

But Smiley told Hazel that he had heard from former Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums that Colin Powell had told Dellums that Guy Philippe (a former Haitian police chief who had trained with the US Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s) was leading a team to Port-au-Prince to kill Aristide and that the Bush administration was going to do nothing to prevent it.

Philippe had been openly boasting that on his birthday, Feb. 29, he would come to Port-au-Prince and kill the president.

Separately, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, called Hazel to offer help finding Aristide safe passage out of the country.

Hazel passed all this information along to Mrs. Aristide, who said thanks but no thanks, the president would not leave until he served out his full term.

Fearing Aristide and his wife might be killed, Hazel called Dellums and urged him to talk to the media, but her suggestion was met with silence.

Robinson called Peter Jennings and a couple of others in the media suggesting they talk to Dellums. All three called him back later to say Dellums declined to confirm the information. Someone had clearly set someone up. But who?

Robinson came to believe that Colin Powell had given Dellums bad information (that Phillipe was coming to attack, when in fact he was spotted leading his team in the opposite direction just days earlier).

Dellums, however, apparently believed the information, but wasn’t willing to jeopardize his relationship with Powell by confirming it, even though Powell appears to have deliberately leaked false information to Dellums in the hope that he would disclose it to frighten Aristide out of the country.

But that plan failed. So a different tack was taken.

Abdication or Abduction?

On Feb. 29, Hazel got a call from another Democratic Congresswoman from California: Maxine Waters, who said CNN was reporting that the Aristides had fled the country the night before. Hazel didn’t believe it, given the calm manner in which Mrs. Aristide had responded the day before.

In addition, Hazel was incensed. “Did you see what the networks did?” Hazel asked Waters. The networks had used old footage of Aristide getting on a commercial plane, using file video to give the impression of a man voluntarily leaving his country.

The next morning, Robinson received a call from Aristide, who told him, over a fragile line, “They brought us to the Central African Republic,” and, “Tell them for us it was a coup. …”

And then the line went dead.

Robinson later obtained a detailed statement from Frantz Gabriel, the president’s helicopter pilot, a former sergeant in the US Army, of how Aristide was essentially kidnapped around 4:00 a.m. at gunpoint and removed from the presidential palace in Gabriel’s presence.

My first blog post ever at my Real History Blog was about this event. As I wrote at the time:

“I used to have the time to publish essays at my Real History Archives site, but with events moving so quickly, I realized what I really needed was a blog to keep up with the (dis)information being spewed at us daily.

“Today was a classic case in point. I had to get a blog up when I saw what was being done to the Aristide coup story. A typical headline told us that Aristide has stepped down from ruling Haiti to avoid bloodshed.

“But read a few more stories and you’ll see that he said he was abducted, that this was a coup helped along by the US Government. Bush (I refuse to call an unelected man ‘President’) stated that Aristide resigned. But around the world, other voices have reason to doubt. You would too, if you knew the Real History … stay tuned.”

It’s taken me until the recent earthquake to tell the rest of that sad story.


Had America let Aristide run his country, without interfering, or had the United States interfered only to protect the Haitian people from the Duvaliers, the Guy Philippes and the Andy Apaids, the suffering in Haiti would have been greatly lessened.

If Washington had let them have their loans for health care, infrastructure, and clean water, there might not be the degree of suffering that we are witnessing in Haiti today.

America bears a huge burden of responsibility for Haiti’s poverty and government dysfunction. But if Americans truly want to reduce Haiti’s suffering now, there must be an end to US support for those who would exploit their own people for personal gain.

Let Haitians decide who will lead them and in what manner. The United States must let their light shine, in whatever direction they choose to point it. America must, for once, follow, and not lead. The Haitians know best what is in their own interest.

Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li. Little by little, they will rebuild their nest.


Lisa Pease is a historian and writer.