WikiLeaks Haiti: The Aristide Files
US officials led a far-reaching international campaign aimed at keeping former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide exiled in South Africa, rendering him a virtual prisoner there for the last seven years, according to secret US State Department cables.
The cables show that high-level US and UN officials even discussed a politically motivated prosecution of Aristide to prevent him from “gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
The secret cables, made available to the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté by WikiLeaks, show how the political defeat of Aristide and his Lavalas movement has been the central pillar of US policy toward the Caribbean nation over the last two US administrations, even though—or perhaps because—US officials understood that he was the most popular political figure in Haiti.
They also reveal how US officials and their diplomatic counterparts from France, Canada, the UN and the Vatican tried to vilify and ostracize the Haitian political leader.
For the Vatican, Aristide was an “active proponent of voodoo.” For Washington, he was “dangerous to Haiti’s democratic consolidation,” according to the secret US cables.
Aristide was overthrown in a bloody February 2004 coup supported by Washington and fomented by right-wing paramilitary forces and the Haitian elite. In the aftermath of the coup, more than 3,000 people were killed and thousands of supporters of Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas political party were jailed.
The United States maintained publicly that Aristide resigned in the face of a ragtag force of former Haitian army soldiers rampaging in Haiti’s north. But Aristide called his escort by a US Navy SEAL team on his flight into exile “a modern-day kidnapping.”
Two months later, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was established, a 9,000-strong UN occupation force that still oversees Latin America’s first independent nation.
Aristide has spoken forcefully against the UN occupation, particularly in his 2010 year-end letter to the Haitian people. “We cannot forget the $5 billion which has already been spent for MINUSTAH over these past six years,” he wrote. “Anybody can see how many houses, hospitals, and schools that wasted money could have built for the victims” of the January 12, 2010, earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions.
Such positions are major reasons Washington fought to get and keep Aristide out of Haiti, the cables make clear. “A premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the [Haitian] government...vulnerable to...resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces—reversing gains of the last two years,” wrote US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in an October 1, 2008, cable. MINUSTAH “is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG [US government] policy interests in Haiti.”
At a high-level meeting five years ago, top US and UN officials discussed how the “Aristide Movement Must Be Stopped,” according to an August 2, 2006, cable. It described how former Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet, then chief of MINUSTAH, “urged US legal action against Aristide to prevent the former president from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
At Mulet’s request, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki “to ensure that Aristide remained in South Africa.”
President Obama and Kofi Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, also intervened to urge Pretoria to keep Aristide in South Africa. The secret cables report that Aristide’s return to Haiti would be a “disaster,” according to the Vatican, and “catastrophic,” according to the French.
But the regional and Haitian view was quite different. US Ambassador James Foley admitted in a confidential March 22, 2005, cable that an August 2004 poll “showed that Aristide was still the only figure in Haiti with a favorability rating above 50%.”
The Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, apparently referring to Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture’s kidnapping and imprisonment in the Jura mountains in 1802, warned “that a perceived ‘Banishing Policy’ has racial and historical overtones in the Caribbean that reminds inhabitants of the region of slavery and past abuse.”
Keeping the Pressure On
After Aristide left Jamaica for exile in South Africa on May 30, 2004, the US government worked overtime to keep him out of Haiti and even the hemisphere, even though the Haitian constitution and international law stipulate that every Haitian citizen has the right to be in his homeland.
When Dominican President Leonel Fernández suggested at a hemispheric conference eight months after the coup that Aristide should return and play a role in Haiti’s political future, the United States reacted angrily, saying in a cable that Fernández had been “wrong in advocating the inclusion in the process of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.”
The US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic “admonished” Fernández “during a pull-aside at a social event.”
“Aristide had led a violent gang involved in narcotics trafficking and had squandered any credibility he formerly may have had,” US Ambassador Hertell told him, according to a November 16, 2004, cable.
“Nobody has given me any information about that,” Fernández replied.
The embassy followed up with a series of aggressive meetings insisting that the Dominican government renounce its support for Aristide. The meetings included a sit-down with the Dominican president specifically on the subject of Haiti with the British, Canadian, French, Spanish and US ambassadors.
No charges were ever filed against Aristide for drug trafficking, although the United States “spent, literally, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars…trying to pin something, anything on President Aristide,” Ira Kurzban, Aristide’s lawyer, told Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints in July. “They’ve had an ATF investigation, a tax investigation, a drug investigation, and now apparently some kind of corruption investigation.... The reality is they’ve come up with nothing because there is nothing.”
According to a report in Haïti Liberté, other sources say that a US legal team is still angling to prosecute Aristide.