Alvin P. Adams dies at 73; U.S. ambassador cleared way for Haiti election

 Alvin P. Adams dies at 73; U.S. ambassador cleared way for Haiti election
President Reagan, left, meets in June 1983 with Alvin Adams, the U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, in the Oval Office. (Ronald Reagan Library)

As fires raged in Port-au-Prince and assassination squads roamed the streets, U.S. Ambassador Alvin P. Adams paid a late-night call on Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, Haiti's military ruler until two days earlier.

Avril, who had been ousted from power but refused to leave, opened his door to the ambassador at 2 a.m. When the two sat down on that March night in 1990, the dapper, chain-smoking Adams was quietly eloquent.


He likened Avril to the besieged Richard M. Nixon during the president's last days in office. Adams spoke of his son, Tung, a 25-year-old U.S. Navy sailor who was killed the previous year in a catastrophic explosion on the Iowa. He spoke of the family members whom his Vietnam-born wife, Mai, had lost to war. And in the streets of Port-au-Prince, he reminded the general, Haitians were dying, and many more were likely to die in the chaos triggered by Avril's refusal to depart.

"You are not the only one with tragedies," Adams told him. "There are ways to deal with tragedies."

Just after dawn, the military strongman and his family boarded a U.S. military plane for refuge in Florida. A justice on Haiti's Supreme Court — the country's first female lawyer, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot — became the provisional head of government. The following year, Haiti held its first legitimate election since its founding in 1804.

Adams, whose career landed him in hot spots around the world and who is credited with paving the way for democratic rule — however brief — in impoverished Haiti, died Oct. 10 at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 73.

The cause was a heart attack, his cousin Kane Phelps said.

Adams served in State Department posts in Vietnam and was U.S. ambassador in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, before his Haiti posting in 1989. He was ambassador to Peru from 1993 to 1996, when he retired from government service.

When he arrived in Haiti, his speech at the airport riled government officials. In fluent Creole, he cited a proverb that was seen as a call for open elections. "A loaded donkey cannot stand still," he told the crowd. From then on, Adams was known in Haiti — a country still plodding toward democracy — as "bourik chaje" — Creole for "loaded donkey."

Adams was unabashed about encouraging a vote.

"He immediately broke with his predecessor's discredited policy of quiet faith in the army to support the electoral process," Human Rights Watch said in 1990.

Columnist Jack Anderson agreed, writing that Adams' "firm speeches on democracy have made him a hit with the desperate masses."

When the masses ultimately voted for leftist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Adams broke out another Creole proverb: "Apres bal, tanbou lou": After the ball, the drums are heavy.

Aristide was toppled in a violent coup 10 months later, and Adams was credited with getting him safely out of the country, holding hostile Haitian soldiers at bay for three hours until a plane from Venezuela could take the deposed leader away.

The charismatic Aristide was twice exiled, and twice was returned to power.

Adams received a State Department award for valor, citing his "acts of heroism, taken at great personal risk."


Born in New York City on Aug. 29, 1942, Alvin Philip Adams Jr. was raised in a turbulent but privileged household. His mother, Elizabeth Miller Adams, was the daughter of former New York Gov. Nathan L. Miller. Adams' father was a hard-drinking, larger-than-life airline executive who lived for a time with his father-in-law in a Gatsby-esque retreat on Long Island's Oyster Bay.

In its 1996 obituary of the elder Adams, the New York Times noted his Jazz Age aura: "It soon became clear that if God had not done it, F. Scott Fitzgerald would have had to invent him," the paper wrote.

Like his father, Alvin Adams Jr. attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale. He received a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967.

Adams met his wife, Mai-Anh Nguyen, when he worked in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Before serving in Haiti, Adams was the State Department's deputy director for counterterrorism from 1985 to 1989.

While his State Department communiques were said to be noted for their cut-through-the-fog conciseness, Adams was also known as a great storyteller. He had a "tremendous, impish charm," his cousin Phelps said. "People were magnetized by him."

Adams was head of the United Nations Assn. of the U.S., a private group supporting the U.N., from 1996 to 1998.

In retirement, he lived in Buenos Aires and Honolulu before moving to Portland in 2011.

Adams' survivors include his son Lex; two grandchildren; brother Nathan; and sister Edith Kiggen.