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Doubts Linger on Aristide’s Exit

Times Staff Writer

It’s been a year since Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled Haiti’s presidential palace on a U.S. jet, but a question still nags many people here and in Washington: Did he jump or was he pushed?

Almost immediately after landing in Africa, where he remains in exile, Aristide began alleging that he was “kidnapped” by U.S. Marines and that he was forced to resign in a U.S.-led “coup d’etat.” Several members of Congress contend he was ousted, and there is a new call in the House of Representatives to investigate the U.S. role in Aristide’s Feb. 29 departure.

Lingering concerns that Aristide’s conservative opponents and the Bush administration colluded to depose him have hindered Haiti’s recovery, fueling violence by some of his supporters. Many of his political allies refuse to take part in new elections unless he returns.

Several people with detailed knowledge of the pre-dawn scramble to get Aristide out of the country said he accepted the offer of a U.S. plane when Washington made it clear it would not send forces to protect him from a rebel onslaught. Afterward, they said, he cast the chaotic departure as a kidnapping.

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“I can tell you unequivocally that he was not kidnapped,” said Kenneth Kurtz, chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Steele Foundation, the security and risk management company that was guarding Aristide at the time.

U.S. Ambassador James B. Foley handled the negotiations between Aristide and then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. He said Aristide had willingly accepted the U.S. offer to fly him into exile.

“When we came through with the offer of safe exit in an airplane, we gave him an alibi for the scenario he’s been using ever since,” Foley said. “We clearly walked into a trap. But I think we did the right thing.... Had we not intervened, there would have been a meltdown and a bloodbath.”

Yet questions linger about how much pressure Foley applied to Aristide, who now lives in South Africa.

Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who spoke with Aristide by telephone several times the night he fled, said the president told him about five hours before he left that he felt “like a prisoner” and that Western diplomats were warning him that unless he left, thousands could die in a clash of his armed supporters and advancing rebels.

Citing concerns about American pressure and “circumstantial evidence” that the U.S. may have helped incite the rebellion against Aristide, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) submitted a bill to Congress on Feb. 17 calling for an investigation.

“The American people and the world deserve to have the facts surrounding any U.S. involvement in what was, in effect, a coup d’etat,” said Lee, adding that she has had no direct contact with Aristide on the issue.

Violence broke out in Haiti in early February 2004, but opposition to Aristide had been building for months as the man once regarded as the nation’s hope for democracy increasingly became seen as an autocrat. Frustrations had grown as national elections were delayed and Parliament ceased to function. Protesters took to the streets complaining of human rights abuses by the government.

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After armed gangs seized police stations in several cities, diplomats from the U.S., Canada, the Organization of American States and the 15-nation Caribbean Community, or Caricom, tried to promote a power-sharing arrangement between Aristide and the mainstream political opposition. The so-called Caricom plan would have allowed Aristide to serve the remaining two years of his term.

On Feb. 23, 50 Marines arrived in Haiti on what was described as a mission to protect the U.S. Embassy. In a recent interview at his residence, Foley said the Marines were preparing for two scenarios: to evacuate Aristide should he choose to leave or to help protect U.S. property and citizens should the rebels make good on threats to seize the National Palace.

On Feb. 24, Aristide called for international troops to halt the rebellion and warned that Haitian boat people would flood U.S. shores if aid wasn’t offered.

“He was trying to trigger an international intervention to save his presidency,” Foley said. Powell had already told Haitian officials there was “no enthusiasm” for military intervention.

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The same day, opposition leaders rejected the power-sharing plan. By the next day, France’s foreign minister was blaming Aristide for the crisis. And on the 26th, Powell said it was unclear whether Aristide would be able to “effectively continue” to lead Haiti.

Andre Apaid, a prominent businessman and leader of the Group of 184, which opposed Aristide, said the U.S. stopped pressuring his group to endorse the power-sharing plan.

“Until Thursday night [Feb. 26], the Americans were holding me by the neck and shaking me into accepting the Caricom plan,” Apaid said. It was only the next day, when Aristide’s street gangs began a spree of looting that held the capital in terror, that the pressure ceased.

“I believe the people in Washington began to see why we couldn’t accept this, that it was not right, that they were pressing the wrong people,” he added.

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Members of Congress who contend Aristide was deposed, among them Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), allege that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and Foley failed to push Aristide’s opponents to accept the Caricom plan because they wanted to force his departure. Both diplomats have denied that.

“We did not support the violent overthrow of that man,” Noriega told a House international relations subcommittee a few days after Aristide’s departure.

“It was the policy of the administration to support President Aristide finishing his term and to promote compromise with the opposition,” Foley said.

U.S. rhetoric against Aristide continued to escalate. On Saturday Feb. 28, the White House said that “the long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide’s doing,” and “his own actions have called into question his fitness to remain in office.”

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According to Foley, a long night of negotiating began with an 8:30 call from Aristide saying he was ready to leave. Throughout the process, Foley said, the discussions were cordial and the president, a former Catholic priest, was “his serene self.”

By 4 a.m. on Feb. 29, the No. 2 official of the U.S. Embassy had arrived at Aristide’s home with five Marines. Within half an hour, the group departed for the airport, where a white, unmarked plane sent by the U.S. arrived about an hour later. After handing over a resignation letter, Aristide left at 6:15 a.m.

But after arriving in the Central African Republic, Aristide phoned Waters. “The world must know it was a coup. I was kidnapped. I was forced out. That’s what happened. I did not resign. I did not go willingly,” Aristide said, according to Waters.

Waters later told journalists that Aristide left after U.S. diplomats threatened to have the Steele Foundation security force withdrawn, leaving him exposed to the rebels. She did not respond to a request for comment.

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Kurtz, Steele’s chief executive, dismissed those allegations as “absolutely false.”

Although he was not in Haiti at the time, Kurtz said he had discussed the events with his clients and with employees who were guarding Aristide. He said his contract with the Haitian government was neither subject to U.S. government approval nor vulnerable to political pressure.

“Whether it’s Foley or Powell or whoever, they have no influence over our provision of services,” he said. “Our orders and communication came directly from the Haitian government.”

To Aristide’s claims that he was surrounded by Marines and compelled to board the aircraft, Kurtz said that could not have happened, that his employees would have intervened to protect the president from coercion. “The decision to leave Haiti was a decision made by the president of Haiti at the time,” Kurtz said.

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Although there were at least 30 people around Aristide in his last hours at his home, on the drive to the airport or aboard the plane, most were U.S. military, diplomatic or private security personnel bound by confidentiality agreements. Attempts to interview them were unsuccessful.

Former Prime Minister Neptune, now jailed on charges of complicity in slayings of Aristide opponents, conceded that he was not in Aristide’s inner circle and was unfamiliar with details of the contract with Steele.

But in an interview at the prison where he has been held for eight months, Neptune said he had been “informed by people in a position to know” that the palace security team was told by American officials that “if the agents got into difficulty, they couldn’t count on U.S. soldiers to help them out.”

Aristide’s contention that he was kidnapped still clearly irritates the U.S. ambassador. Calling the claim “one of the more remarkable feats of ingratitude” he has encountered, Foley said he would welcome a congressional probe to dispel the “myths” surrounding Aristide’s exile.

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Neptune blames Washington not for abducting Aristide but for undermining him with economic sanctions after tainted elections in May 2000. He cast the president’s departure as the result of the international community’s failure to rescue him.

It was Neptune who read Aristide’s resignation letter at a news conference two hours after the president departed. In the note, Aristide said he was leaving because “the constitution should not drown in the blood of the Haitian people.”

Neptune said he believed the letter was genuine and added that Aristide never denied writing it. He speculated that Aristide’s concern for his American wife and two daughters might have driven him to “compromise with himself.”

“I would rather die than leave my country, but I don’t have the right to say he should feel the same,” Neptune said.

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“I’m not defending the person of Aristide but the principle of democracy accepted by the Haitian people,” he said. The international community’s failure to ensure that Aristide completed his term, he said, “sets back Haitian democracy by 15 years.”


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