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Haiti Under Secretary Powell's
Tutelage and Control

by Larry Birns
Council on Hemispheric Affairs Director
March 8, 2004

It's a win for Secretary of State Powell's confused, contradictory and hypocritical policy, but does it advance authentic U.S. national interests?

Powell's vision for Latin America is now indistinguishable from that of his junior hemispheric policymaking colleagues, ideologues Noriega and Reich. The battle for the Secretary of State's soul has ended in a rout for those who had highly regarded the man they thought he was, in contrast to the man he turned out to be.

The conflagration on the island hasn't ended; it will continue to burn down the country's constitutional structure and eat away at what small chance Haiti had to evolve into a stable democratic society.

Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, the U.S., the OAS, CARICOM, the UN and Haiti heroes and trimmers.

Less through confusion than by design, by belatedly introducing this country's and other foreign forces into Haiti, Washington has guaranteed that Haiti's now deeply scarred society is unlikely to easily recuperate from the wounds inflicted on it by an array of villains, both foreign and domestic. While many in both of those categories are destined to face the scrutiny of objective critics in the months and years to come, none of their reputations are more likely to be tarnished by the role that they played in bringing down President Aristide's constitutional rule, than Secretary of State Colin Powell. In effect, he willingly became the captive of the Bush administration's obsessive right-wing ideologues--the fateful sons of former Senator Jesse Helms--led by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Fisk, and White House aide Otto Reich.

First there were Powell's earlier and highly criticized efforts to assure the American public of the reliability of what turned out to be either fake or exaggerated intelligence findings regarding the intent and capacity of Saddam Hussein to resort to weapons of mass destruction, which provided the justification for Washington's controversial decision to go to war against Iraq. Now we have just witnessed the extraordinary shifts and duplicity of what only charitably can be described as Powell's Haitian diplomacy.

His behavior has destroyed any illusion that the Secretary of State could be relied upon to control the two changeling political appointees who had been pushed upon him by Miami's clout with the White House--Noriega and Reich. In the end, Powell's already fading reputation for moderation was not to be found when it came to Haiti.

Powell's End Game

Powell's Haitian policy was dazzlingly inept. Recalling that only days before Aristide was put on a plane on February 29 for his flight into exile in the Central African Republic, which the State Department had ordered and arranged, the Secretary repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy of Aristide's rule and denounced the "thugs" making up the violent opposition. He also insisted that they would not be allowed to shoot their way to power, nor would Aristide be asked to resign. Once becoming more engaged, Powell began calling upon the anti-Aristide political opposition to negotiate with the government and that Washington would not sanction regime change or insist upon Aristide's forced ouster. Then, scarcely twenty-four hours before Aristide's induced flight into exile, Powell reversed himself by ignoring Haiti's constitution, which stipulates that a president can only convey his resignation to the country's legislature, and not to some self-denominated Washington viceroy, in implementing the script to abduct Aristide.

If Powell really meant his words at the time, it was surprising that he didn't stick by them, since Aristide had done nothing to justify this 100 percent reversal in the U.S. stand. While Powell's rhetoric at the time appeared to represent the high road on the issue, he continuously was being undermined by Noriega and Reich in their off-the-record briefings to journalists and other interest parties. In contrast to Powell's line, these press sessions implied that regime change was very much an option, and that Aristide could be muscled aside in any negotiation process.

Less than Meets the Eye

All along, when it came to Haiti, Powell's defense of democracy was more apparent than real. To begin, the U.S. embassy in Port-Au-Prince was rarely a passive bystander to Haiti's ongoing violence. In effect, Ambassador Foley, just as was the case with all of his recent predecessors at the Port-au-Prince post, saw his embassy as Fort Apache, and that the local restless Indians had to be kept in place through the use of an agile and an exceedingly active embassy playmaker who would call the shots that would determine Haiti's ultimate fate. The cumulative result was that the space left to President Aristide to publicly function continued to atrophy until last month, when his position had become all but untenable.

Just as in Venezuela two years ago, where a failed coup had been hatched against President Hugo Chavez with the help of the political backing and covert funding provided by the then chief U.S. regional policy maker, Otto Reich, a markedly similar scenario has just been witnessed in Haiti. This approach represented an almost farcical evasion of hemispheric obligations on the part of U.S. coup plotters, in order to provide legal cover for their patently illegal actions.

In an indisputable contravention of its OAS responsibilities under resolutions signed by the U.S. over the past decade in Santiago and Lima, aimed at mandating democratic legitimacy throughout the hemisphere, the U.S. turned out to be the lead co-conspirator in planting a hatchet in Haiti's civil society. This was the culmination of its long-sought foreign policy goal of either eliminating or bypassing Aristide and somehow voiding his inconvenient but undeniable democratic credentials, in order to either drain him of his agenda-setting powers or, preferably, getting rid of them and him as well.

Tattered Credentials

It was not only the U.S. which has had its bona fides seriously compromised by the extorted resignation of Aristide. Reminiscent of Ethiopia's Haile Selassi's mournful appearance before the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936, where he pleaded for help to suppress Mussolini's legions, only the English-speaking Caribbean, led by Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, displayed any spunk in challenging the inelegant U.S.-orchestrated game plan.

As the crisis began to mount last December and the political opposition became more assertive in the streets of Port-Au-Prince, the U.S. strategy to resolve Haiti's political crisis began to take form. It was based on preposterous assumptions as well as cynical planning. A U.S.-sanctioned international peace force would be introduced into Haiti, but only to uphold a prior political agreement to be fashioned between Aristide and the Port-Au-Prince-based political opposition, led by the businessmen-dominated "Group of 184." (Funding) The central credo of the latter body was that it would not, under any circumstances, carry on a dialogue with Aristide. Since there were to be no negotiations, there could be no agreement. But according to Powell's pharisaical formula, there would be no peacekeeping initiative unless such negotiations took place and a resolution achieved. Yet it was Aristide who conceded to every demand made on him by the OAS, the E.U. (especially France), the U.N., the U.S., and the CARICOM nations. He was also repeatedly denounced by Powell and the international community for his obstructionism, but only rarely was the opposition, which saw its vested interest intrinsically better served by chaos than peace. This was a solid strategy on the opposition's part, because it knew that it lacked the popularity to win the elections which successful talks inevitably would help bring about.

All Dishonorable Men

Powell's thesis that a political solution must precede the arrival of a peace force was indefensible on grounds of elemental logic. One would think that such an envisaged peace force would be much more urgently needed while violence was occurring, and Aristide was dangerously tottering, rather than after a peace agreement had been achieved. Demonstratively, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France and for that matter, the U.N. and the OAS, signed on to Powell's diktat strategy of taking no action until it was too late to save Haiti's now fatally blasted democratic germ plasm. In the manner of a blow hard, Powell later blamed Aristide for dilly-dallying; however it was Powell who was calculatedly using up the Aristide government's precious remaining moments with inaction, even though there was time enough for the U.S. to demonstrate it meant to induce continued democratic rule, if this, in fact, was its intention. One would expect limp wrist behavior from an already discredited Secretary-General Gaviria of the O.A.S., or from President Lagos of Chile, whose unregenerate military under Gen. Pinochet routinely tortured and murdered anyone with Aristide's radical agenda. This assignment of several hundred of his Hessians, from a country whose own race relations are deplorable, was a small enough payment to be made by the former self-described socialist leader to show Chile's gratitude to the White House for entering into a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with it. Meanwhile, Brazil's Lula de Silva meekly prepared his own troop contingents to be dispatched to the island, all after the fact, while Kirchner's Argentina chose to sit out the controversy altogether, with both of the latter not bothering to significantly comment on Powell's preposterous formulations.

Canada Presents No Problems

Predictably, Canada's new prime minister, intent on improving relations with Washington, accepted Powell's snake oil formula for all-but-guaranteeing Aristide's eventual ouster. Such a policy ill-served his country's constructive reputation for fielding a somewhat less patronizing attitude to the rest of the region than its U.S. neighbor. Ottawa's supine accommodation to Powell's illusory timetable for when to intervene was deeply troubling, particularly since the governing Liberal Party was part of the problem for not having allowed its police trainers to remain in Haiti long enough back in 1994-96 to adequately carry out its failed commitment to professionalize the country's security force.

Mexico's silence over Haiti on the eve of President Fox's visit to the Bush family ranch was sadly understandable, given the Mexican leader's lonely quest for immigration reform, but the silence by the region's other heavy hitters was totally incomprehensible. At the end of the day, standing almost alone, it was Jamaica's prime minister, P.J. Patterson, who upheld the region's honor by implicitly rebuking the timidity of other hemisphere leaders in their hiding behind Jesuitic reasoning to justify their decisions to be irrelevant, if not indifferent to the fateful interruption of the democratic process in Haiti. Patterson took this stand in spite of the vulnerability of Jamaica's sagging economy and its need for Washington's financial backing.

Aside from Powell, the world leader most deserving of derision is France's Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Seemingly, the French diplomat at first boldly confronted the rapidly deteriorating situation in Haiti by calling for urgent action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, but he then dramatically contracted his profile on the issue by completely embracing Powell's thesis that a political solution must precede dispatching any peace forces. With this acquiescence, Washington's position of stalling on any concrete action until the demise of Aristide's rule was a done deal, with the French official amiably falling on his sword after proving to be of less heroic stature than he would have had the world believe.

Powell's Tainted Role

U.S. Embassy authorities were able to thrust a resignation letter into Aristide's hands for him to sign under the implicit threat that this was the only way for him and his close ones to be flown out of the country to safety. Once airborne, Aristide was only told of his ultimate destination of the Central African Republic a half hour before his scheduled landing, just as he wasn't allowed to communicate with the outside world or be told when his plane had landed during a four-hour stopover. All of these insulting actions flouted the utter contempt in which he was held by U.S. officials. Powell's defense of this scenario was based on his now thoroughly revised line that Aristide was a "flawed" president who brought on his own dire fate, as if the tattered remnants of the Secretary of State's own reputation were something else.

The embassy's arrangement of Aristide's exodus was particularly outrageous and already is being denounced around the world. In retrospect, Powell's conduct of U.S.-Haiti policy should be seen for what it was--a flagrantly callous treatment of a leader who was no less worthy than his Washington counterpart.

In this context, Powell must accept that for the best of reasons his protracted honeymoon with the public is now at an end, and his moral code is akin to that of Noriega or Reich. In reality, Powell already had given himself away several months ago when he demanded that the obliging presidents of Mexico and Chile sack their UN ambassadors for having the audacity to vote with the majority in opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Today Haiti is a horrific mess, but this shouldn't be solely attributed to President Aristide's "flawed performance," as the U.S. Secretary of State all too facilely maintains. If Aristide was flawed, it was largely due to the impossible conditions laid down by Washington for him to rule.

Powell bought into his junior hardliners' interpretation of events by caving in to the Miami-bred zealotry of his Latin American policy makers, thus hopelessly exacerbating Haiti's last three years of strife and misery. By sanctioning the continued freeze of $500 million in multilateral assistance to Haiti on the exaggerated pretext of irregularities in the presidential and senatorial elections in 2000, one has the perfect parallel with his illusory statements to Congress and to the American public over Iraq. But just as Powell had insisted that sound intelligence existed when he passionately validated the entirely erroneous belief that Iraq posed an urgent threat, he again presented an entirely false picture of the causative agents of Haiti's political and economic difficulties to the American public and what this country has been doing to redress them.

A Bankrupt Policy

There is simply no disputing the fact that the extremism and mean-spirited nature of Washington's Haitian policy helped to prevent democratic practices from taking root on the island. But in the end, Secretary of State Powell must be condemned for sponsoring a policy that was superficial, illogical, narrowly conceptualized and damaging both to the U.S. national interest and Haiti's most basic human needs. Any hope that the kind of human misery propelling tens of thousands of Haitians over the past decade to risk their lives trying to reach south Florida can be assuaged by throwing the country open to a political process which has no natural heroes nor any reason for its citizenry to trust their new U.S.-imposed officials, deserves to be seen as only one more of Powell's illusions.

The above memorandum, authored by Council on Hemispheric Affairs director Larry Birns, with the assistance of COHA Research Associate Jill Shelly, is an adaptation of an article that will appear in the forthcoming issue of "In These Times."

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