For the second time in less than two years, the Bush administration is fighting accusations that it backed the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Latin America.
Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has charged the US with forcing him from power at gunpoint. US Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed that as 'absurd'. But there is growing international disquiet. As with the unsuccessful US-endorsed coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April 2002, Washington faces charges that it is reverting to Cold War tactics to dispose of leaders it does not fancy.
Even before Aristide's departure became an alleged kidnapping, some Latin American leaders were warning that the US role in Haiti was ominous. 'The removal of President Aristide in these circumstances sets a dangerous precedent for democratically elected governments anywhere and everywhere,' Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson, the chairman of the 15-nation Caribbean Community - Caricom - said last week. 'We are bound to question whether his resignation was truly voluntary, as it comes after the capture of sections of Haiti by armed insurgents and the failure of the international community to provide the requisite support, despite the appeals of Caricom.'
Three days before Aristide fell, Caricom had appealed to the UN for immediate intervention in Haiti. The UN Security Council did not authorize peacekeepers until last Sunday, after Aristide had left and Washington had announced it would be sending marines. 'We cannot fail to observe that what was impossible on Thursday could be accomplished in an emergency meeting on Sunday,' said Patterson. 'We are disappointed in the extreme at their failure to act.'
After Aristide took office in February 2001, the US played a leading role in forcing hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid to be cut off, while bolstering a minority opposition led by Haiti's tiny elite. In the past three years, the nation's already moribund economy further deteriorated and the government ground to a halt as the opposition refused to participate in elections.
The blocked aid and election boycott were a response to legislative and local elections in May 2000 - six months before Aristide was elected - in which methodology used to tally eight Senate contests was questioned by the Organization of American States.
In recent weeks, the US ignored pleas from the government for an international peacekeeping force as a motley band of armed thugs led by a suspected drug trafficker and fugitive death squad leaders overran more than half the country. US marines now in Haiti have made no effort to disarm these rebels.
While in the military in the early 1990s, rebel leader Guy Phillippe received training from US Special Forces in Ecuador. He later became police chief in Cap-Haitien, where he was accused of drug-trafficking and plotting a coup. Another rebel leader, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, was second in command of the murderous FRAPH paramilitary group, suspected of killing thousands during the 1991-1994 military regime. Former FRAPH leader Emmanuel 'Toto' Constant, who lives in New York, has acknowledged working for CIA agents while FRAPH was massacring dissidents.
There is no evidence so far of the US backing the rebels, as Aristide aides maintain. But US policy toward Haiti appeared to be a war of attrition, driven by animosity towards Aristide, a former priest who rankled Washington with his anti-capitalist sermons and his adherence to liberation theology, a Catholic doctrine that advocates spiritual and economic help for the poor and oppressed.
'US policy right now is in the hands of the ideologues,' said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 'You cannot overestimate the relevance of these people in shaping US policy. In a sense the Helms school of Haitian strategy is at work here.'
Jesse Helms, right-wing former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a sworn adversary of Aristide. One of his protégés, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, is now the top State Department official overseeing Latin America. Helms denounced Aristide as 'psychotic' on the Senate floor, based on a CIA document later discredited as a forgery.
US officials have played down their involvement in Aristide's fall. But critics of US policy believe this is a thinly veiled coup, comparing it to the failed overthrow in Venezuela - America backing a minority opposition that had snubbed polls in favor of removing an elected president by force.
Aristide, like Chavez, has been accused of a gamut of abuses, including corruption and arming slum militias. But both were freely elected and continued to count on fervent support from their nation's poor majorities.
Chavez himself has declared Aristide's removal 'a tragedy'. 'These are our brothers who have also been trampled by the Haitian oligarchy and their foreign allies,' he said last week.
When Chavez was ousted, Latin American leaders threatened to impose economic sanctions on the de facto government, helping to restore the President to power two days after he was removed. But those leaders have been silent about Aristide's ousting although South Africa has denounced the 'unclear' circumstances. President Mbeki's government has promised to consider any asylum request by Aristide, who is now in the Central African Republic. Pretoria has joined Caricom in calls for an international inquiry but so far it seems unlikely one will materialize.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004