When U.S. military forces surrounded the National Palace in Haiti on the night of Feb. 28-29, and U.S. diplomats entered the palace to deliver an ultimatum to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, they were playing out only the final act of a coup that had been years in the making.
When Aristide was inaugurated as president of the poorest country in the hemisphere in 2001, the United States cut off aid to Haiti and blocked international assistance. Instead, the U.S. government, through the National Endowment for Democracy, funded and advised the small, wealthy elite who led Haitian political opposition. The grounds for U.S. opposition to Aristide's presidency were allegedly "flawed" elections in May 2000 — six months before Aristide himself was elected president.
The "flaw" in the May 2000 elections was not electoral fraud of any sort, but rather the decision of the National Electoral Council to seat seven senators who had won a plurality — but not a majority — of votes. The Aristide government eventually convinced these senators to resign and attempted to set new elections. The opposition, which has never had anything close to enough support to win an election, refused. Throughout his entire term, Aristide repeatedly agreed to new conditions and proposals for elections. The opposition refused each and every proposal, including recent proposals made by the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Community, the United States and France.
Haiti was a desperately poor country before the Duvalier dictatorship was overthrown in the 1980s. When Aristide was first elected in 1990, he took office on a promise to work for the poor rather than the rich. Within months, he was overthrown by a military coup, which then ruled for three bloody years, ravaging the country and destroying its minimal infrastructure. The international community and the United States forced out the military and brought Aristide back in 1994, promising aid to rebuild the country.
Most of the promised aid never materialized. Aristide refused to run again in 1995, out of respect for the constitutional prohibition on presidents serving consecutive terms. His democratically elected successor, President René Préval, had little success in gaining the cooperation of the Haitian elite, in rebuilding the country or in securing international aid. In November 2000, Aristide was once again elected president, and the U.S. coup machine ground into gear.
A few weeks ago, armed rebels invaded Haiti. Their leaders had led earlier coups and coup attempts. Louis-Jodel Chamblain is a military officer from the 1991-94 regime, and a death squad leader convicted of murdering political opponents. He was living in exile in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Guy Philippe was a former police chief, trained in Ecuador by U.S. Special Forces. He fled the country after using his police position to launch an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2000. They led a well-armed force of a few hundred men garbed in military fatigues and carrying U.S.-made M-16s and grenade launchers.
As the armed rebels approached Port-au-Prince, the political opposition continued to refuse all offers of electoral solutions. The U.S. diplomats who arrived in the night delivered a dreadful message. In Aristide's words, "They told me the foreigners and Haitian terrorists alike, loaded with heavy weapons, were already in position to open fire on Port-au-Prince. And right then, the Americans precisely stated that they will kill thousands of people and it will be a bloodbath. That the attack is ready to start, and when the first bullet is fired nothing will stop them and nothing will make them wait."
His only option, the Americans told him, was to immediately accept their offer of an escort to an airplane that would take him into exile. And they would only take him to the airplane if he first gave them a letter of resignation.
As U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel said recently, "the United States government used the threat of violence against the constitutionally elected president of Haiti and his family to obtain his resignation and departure from Haiti before the end of his constitutionally determined term of office."
"That action," added Rangel, "meets the definition of a coup d'etat."
Turck of St. Paul is the editor of Connection to the Americas, a publication of the Resource Center of the Americas.
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