Regime Change in Haiti (03/04)

The first time the US intervened in Haiti, not many people noticed. Few journalists were on hand in 1915, and most newspapers were willing to accept the official version. According to President Woodrow Wilson, establishing a protectorate was part of a grand effort to halt a "radically evil and corrupting" revolution, support the "slow process of reform," and extend his policy of the "open door to the world."

But that was just the cover story. Actually, Wilson saw the island nation as a geo-strategic pawn in the build up to World War I; specifically, he was worried that Germany might take advantage of the local political turmoil to establish a military base in the hemisphere. He also had other, even stronger economic reasons to seize control of the country.

Haiti was an endangered investment property. The National City Bank controlled the country’s National Bank and railroad system, and sugar barons viewed the country’s rich plantations as promising takeover targets. Unfortunately for investors and entrepreneurs, the nation had been through seven presidents in four years, most of them killed or removed prematurely. The rural north was under the control of rebels, the Cacos, a movement adopting its name from the cry of a native bird. Although widely portrayed as just another group of murderous bandits, the Cacos were essentially nationalists who were attempting to resist the control of France, the US, and the small minority of mulattos who dominated the economy.

During the early years of the occupation, the Cacos continued to resist, under the leadership of their own Sandino, an army officer turned guerrilla leader named Charlemayne Peralte. Murdered by an American Marine in 1919, Peralte became a symbol for the democracy movement of the late 1980s that ultimately led to the election of the liberation theology priest Jean Bertrand Aristide. 

Then, in the 1990s, it happened again. Seven months after his 1991 election, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup. It took three years, but by 1994 Haiti’s plight was big news. The coverage was highly selective, however, never mentioning CIA support for those who conducted the coup or the Haitian military’s involvement in drug trafficking. Prior to the US occupation, the media was also suspiciously silent about, as Aristide put it, a "sham embargo" that squeezed the poor but exempted businesses. Although an oil embargo was imposed, fuel was easily smuggled into the country from the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, a smear campaign against Aristide was launched.

After considerable hesitation, another US occupation began. But just as President Wilson had veiled his autocratic actions on behalf of US economic interests with rhetoric about stability and democracy, President Clinton talked about "upholding democracy." In fact, the central objective of the 1990s occupation was to maintain effective control of the country until Aristide’s term expired. Media coverage tended to obscure the obvious: the US, never comfortable with Aristide, had entered into an agreement with the Haitian military for national co-management until the next elections.

Looking back, most policy-makers and analysts still insist that the US entered Haiti years before only to restore stability. Few journalists even mention that some sort of revolution was underway; even those who do invariably describe the situation as chaotic. According to conventional wisdom, the US remained in Haiti for 19 years in the early 20th Century because the Haitian people could not effectively govern themselves or sustain democratic institutions. They weren’t ready in 1915 and, some skeptics claimed, they still weren’t in the 1990s.

At a September 1994 rally, Ross Perot echoed this popular prejudice in his own "know-nothing" style. "Haitians like a dictator," he announced, "I don’t know why." The implication, underscoring his opposition to US intervention, was that he also didn’t care what happened there, and neither should most people.

The Bush administration may have counted on a similar reaction when it embraced a violent uprising against Aristide beginning in late 2003, or even after it reportedly forced him to sign a resignation letter on at 2 a.m. on Sunday, February 29, 2004. According to the “ex-president,” he was kidnapped at gunpoint, and flown without his knowledge to the Central African Republic. This should not be so hard to believe, since Aristide never had the current administration’s support, and his inability to maintain order in an atmosphere of US-backed destabilization provided an excellent pretext for another exercise in “regime change.”

In early February, a “rebel” paramilitary army crossed the border from the Dominican Republic. This trained and well-equipped unit included former members of The Front for the Advancement of Progress in Haiti (FRAPH), a disarming name for "plain clothes" death squads involved in mass killing and political assassinations during the 1991 military coup that overthrew Aristide’s first administration. The self-proclaimed National Liberation and Reconstruction Front (FLRN) was also active, and was led by Guy Philippe, a former police chief and member of the Haitian Armed Forces. Philippe had been trained during the coup years by US Special Forces in Ecuador, together with a dozen other Haitian Army officers. Two other rebel commanders were Emmanuel “Toto” Constant and Jodel Chamblain, former members of the Duvalier era enforcer squad, the Tonton Macoute, and leaders of FRAPH.

Both armed rebels and civilian backers like G-184 leader Andre Apaid were involved in the latest plot. Apaid was in touch with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the weeks leading up to Aristide’s overthrow. Both Philippe and Constant have past ties to the CIA, and were in touch with US officials.

On February 20, US Ambassador James Foley called in a team of four military experts from the US Southern Command, based in Miami, according to the Seattle Times. Officially, their mandate was "to assess threats to the embassy and its personnel." Meanwhile, as a “precautionary measure,” three US naval vessels were placed on standby to go to Haiti. One was equipped with Vertical takeoff Harrier fighters and attack helicopters. At least 2000 Marines were also ready for deployment.

After Aristide’s kidnapping, however, Washington made no effort to disarm its proxy paramilitary army, now slated to play a role in the "transition." In other words, the Bush administration had no plans to prevent the killing of Lavalas and Aristide supporters in the wake of the president’s removal. In covering the crisis, corporate media ignored both history and the role played by the CIA. Instead, so-called "rebel leaders," commanders of death squads in the 1990s, were recognized as legitimate opposition spokesmen.

The Bush administration effectively scapegoated Aristide, holding him solely responsible for "a worsening economic and social situation." It sounds very much like the run up to the 2003 California recall movement that replaced Grey Davis with the GOP’s new star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In truth, Haiti’s economic and social crisis was largely caused by the devastating economic reforms imposed by the IMF since the 1980s. Aristide’s 1994 return to power was conditioned on his acceptance of IMF economic “therapy.” He complied, but was "blacklisted" and demonized anyway.

Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky charges that Bush hopes to “reinstate Haiti as a full-fledged US colony, with all the appearances of a functioning democracy. The objective is to impose a puppet regime in Port-au-Prince and establish a permanent US military presence in Haiti. The US Administration ultimately seeks to militarize the Caribbean basin.”

And why would it want to do that? Hispaniola (the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic) is a gateway to the Caribbean basin, strategically located between Cuba to the North West and Venezuela to the South. US military forces on the island can help to sustain political pressure on both Cuba and Venezuela, while also becoming part of a larger regional operation.

As Haiti lurches backward, the US is preparing for what intelligence operatives call “a second bite at the cherry” in Venezuela. Unhappy with President Hugo Chavez, the Bush administration has been slowly turning up the heat since entering the White House. They certainly didn’t appreciate his friendship with Fidel Castro, criticism of US plans for a free trade zone in the Americas, or his opposition to the war in Iraq. The first big step was a coup in April 2002. But the US-friendly Pedro Carmona Estanga was ousted from power within two days, after dissolving parliament and scrapping the constitution, and Chavez was brought back.

Since then, Chavez has repeatedly charged that the US administration and CIA are funding various opposition moves to overthrow his government. One of the more obvious telltale signs is that Venezuelan nationals, recruited with promises of fast-track US citizenship, have been training at the US Army School of Americas (SOA), renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). From there, they relocate to camps at Iquitos in the northern jungles of Peru, under the direction of the US Southern Command.

The backdrop is Venezuela’s status as the fourth largest oil-exporting country in the world, and currently the third largest source of US oil imports. This has made it a major cash cow for Phillips Petroleum and ExxonMobil; Chevron Texaco and Occidental Petroleum also have significant investments. 

As in Haiti, it is now a matter of waiting for the correct pretext, most likely to be provided by more opposition-inspired violence. US Air Force and Navy contingents on Aruba (Dutch Antilles) are ready to provide logistic and material back-up, and a US Navy hospital ship is reportedly on standby to take a position off the northern coast at first signal of “the balloon going up.”

At the same time, the Pentagon has been quietly consolidating the military occupation of Ecuador, accelerating the completion of military bases and an espionage center, as well as the training of elite counterinsurgent units. The moves are reportedly preparations for a new stage of Plan Colombia – “multinational” intervention against the country’s main rebel groups, the FARC and ELN. Opposition leader Miguel Morán of the Tohalli movement charges that the whole country has become a US base.

The Manta naval and air base is located on the Pacific shore within one hour’s flight time from the Colombian border. It directs key mercenary operations under contract to Dyncorp., a private military company (PMC) that is developing logistics centers and coordinating “anti-terror” training of the Ecuadorian police. In July 2000, Manta became a main center of electronic espionage in South America, using Pentagon satellite technology. The base currently houses at least 160 US officers and 231 Dyncorp. employees, almost all former soldiers.

Washington is reportedly preparing to unleash skirmishes inside Colombian territory, with Ecuador performing a function similar to Honduras in Reagan’s war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua — US aircraft carrier in an undercover war.

In 2002, Dyncorp. was hired by the Pentagon to fumigate coca fields under Plan Colombia. But it is also in charge of logistics, aviation and administrative services, and offers computer technology services at Manta. According to Colonel Jorge Brito, an Ecuadorian military strategist, Dyncorp. staff have diplomatic immunity, but carry out espionage.

A "confidential" covenant between Dyncorp. and the Aeronautics Industries Directorate of the Ecuadorian Air Force was exposed last November. According to military sources cited by Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, the arrangement was hidden from the National Defense Council. The deal makes both soldiers and Dyncorp. employees part of the US diplomatic mission to the country. With that status, they don’t pay taxes or duties, use vehicles without plates, and must be judged by US courts if they get in trouble.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the number of security agencies, soldiers, and "contractors" assigned to Ecuador by the US have dramatically increased. In 2001, US funding for its Quito embassy was $2 million. The next year it jumped to $25 million, and reached $37 million in 2003.

In short, Haiti has provided a useful test for the administration’s emerging regional strategy – undermining troublesome regimes while touting its commitment to democracy. As a side benefit, it also provided a useful short-term diversion from Iraq and the economy, and, so far at least, charges that clandestine US operations stimulated Haiti’s unrest and even removed a democratically-elected president have been easy to deny. 

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom, an international newsletter based in Vermont (, and the author of books such as Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.  He has written about Haiti since visiting the island nation in 1977, including a documentary on the DVD collection Haiti Rising (Green Valley Media).