George H.W. Bush’s Grim Legacy in Haiti

The first of two parts

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Pres. Jean-Bertrand Aristide meets with Pres. George H.W. Bush at the White House on Oct. 4, 1991, four days after the Sep. 30 coup d’état in Haiti. Credit: Getty Photos.

George Herbert Walker Bush, the United States’ 41st president from Jan. 20, 1989 to Jan. 20, 1993, died on Nov. 30 in Houston, TX at the age of 94. He was the father of George Walker Bush, the 43rd U.S. president, and had been President Ronald Reagan’s Vice-President (1981-1989).

Without exception, the U.S. mainstream media offered glowing praise of his one-term presidency, presenting his Republican administration as an example of genteel civility versus President Donald Trump’s buffoonish ineptitude.

Haitians, like the citizens of Panama and Iraq, remember George Bush, Sr. as a war-mongering, coup-supporting, refugee-persecuting imperialist

The New York Times lauded him as a “genial force in American politics” while the Washington Post called him “a consummate public servant and a statesman.”

But Haitians, like the citizens of Panama and Iraq, remember George Bush, Sr. as a war-mongering, coup-supporting, refugee-persecuting imperialist, whose brutal policies, both open and veiled, resulted in the death of thousands and the uprooting of tens of thousands.

Bush I’s bloody invasions of Panama (Dec. 1989) and Iraq (Jan. 1991) were the hallmarks of his aggressive foreign policy. But his support for Haitian dictatorship, sabotage of Haitian democracy, and inhumanity towards Haitian refugees were equally illustrative of the iron-fist that flexed beneath his velvet-glove of nasal righteousness.

Support for the Military Dictatorship of Gen. Prosper Avril

Gen. Prosper Avril, a long-time eminence grise and strategist for dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, came to power in a military coup d’état against rival Gen. Henry Namphy in September 1988.

By January 1989, when the Bush administration assumed office, Avril had an abominable human rights record, but Bush continued to give him the same full support that Reagan did.

The Bush I administration found “progress” and “encouraging developments” in Gen. Prosper Avril’s dismal human rights record. Credit: Thony Bélizaire

In a hearing before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Mar. 14, 1989, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard Melton asked Congress for six to ten million dollars of aid, in the form of wheat for resale, to be sent to Avril’s regime. Overt U.S. aid to Haiti had been stopped since the Nov. 29, 1987 election massacres in Haiti under the neo-Duvalierist military junta of Gens. Henry Namphy and Williams Regala.

Melton, formerly U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, said the Bush administration found “progress” and “encouraging developments” in the Avril regime’s human rights record. He dismissed the epidemic of neo-Macoute death-squad activity and other violence as socio-economic, personal, or emanating from “the extreme right and the extreme left,” with no link to government policies or agencies.

In this sense, the Bush administration provided continuity for the practices of Reagan’s State Department, which found human rights advancing in Haiti every year from 1981 to 1988, including in late 1985, when then Secretary of State George Schultz “certified” Baby Doc’s dictatorship as democratic only a few weeks before its Feb. 7, 1986 fall.

In late February 1989, Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, and the Barbados-based Caribbean Rights jointly issued a 159-page report chastising Avril’s regime. Saying his government had “mocked [its] vows…to usher in democracy and respect human rights,” the report detailed a litany of political repression and intimidation since Avril’s coup six months earlier.

At the end, the report quoted U.S. Ambassador Brunson McKinley, who was Bush’s friend, having worked for him when Bush was the U.S. Liaison to China from 1974 to 1975.

“Human rights violations are endemic to the Haitian tradition,” McKinley said. “It’s part of the culture.”

Challenged about the remark, he replied: “Anyone can make a statement about human rights [in Haiti, but]… repetition becomes boring.” (McKinley had been a close aide and protégé of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin in Vietnam during the U.S. evacuation from there in 1975).

Opposition to and Undermining of Pres. Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Government

Despite Bush administration support, Gen. Prosper Avril was chased from power by a popular uprising in March 1990. Over the next nine months, a provisional government organized a Dec. 16, 1990 election which was overwhelmingly won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former liberation-theology parish priest from Port-au-Prince’s La Saline slum.

Washington had strongly backed second place candidate Marc Bazin, a former World Bank-economist, and was stunned by the loss. Through U.S. Ambassador Alvin Adams (another veteran diplomat from the Vietnam era), the Bush administration began to politically undermine Aristide’s fledgling government.

Democracy-enhancement programs try to strengthen conservative forces within the legislature, the local government structures, and civil society at large.

“After President Aristide’s victory, [Washington’s] support for political projects in Haiti soared again with the addition of a five-year, $24 million package for ‘Democracy Enhancement,’” wrote the Quixote Center’s Marx V. Aristide and Laurie Richardson in NACLA in 1994. “Democracy-enhancement programs try to strengthen conservative forces within the legislature, the local government structures, and civil society at large. Their aim is, as summed up by the [1992 Inter-Hemispheric Education] Resource Center report, ‘to unravel the power and influence of grassroots organizations that formed the popular base of the Aristide government.’”

At the same time, during the summer of 1991, the former-CIA-director-turned-president George Bush’s government fanned the flames of street demonstrations led by the likes of renegade unionist Jean-Auguste Mesyeux and his “Vant Tanpèt” (Storm Winds, echoing the recent “Desert Storm”) movement. “Democracy-enhanced” parliamentarians tried to organize a no-confidence vote against Aristide’s prime minister René Préval in August 1991, but demonstrating popular organizations surrounded the Parliament, scuttling the vote.

On Sep. 27, Aristide made a triumphant return to Port-au-Prince from his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Upon learning that a Haitian Army ambush awaited the president on the road to the National Palace, Aristide’s personal security corps drove through nearby Cité Soleil, where the motorcade picked up an escort of tens of thousands of cheering slumdwellers. Back safely at the National Palace, a stoked and relieved Aristide made a speech praising popular power, which the coup supporters later spun as a mortal threat against his political opponents.

Two days later, on the night of Sep. 29-30, the Haitian Army made their second coup attempt, this time, successfully. Hundreds of demonstrators poured out into the central Champ de Mars, as they had done nine months earlier to successfully foil an attempted coup d’état by former Tonton Macoute chief Roger Lafontant and confederates on Jan. 6, 1991. But this time, soldiers and policemen under the command of Col. Michel François drove buses into the square and machine-gunned the crowds, killing hundreds, witnesses testify.

Meanwhile, Aristide’s fate was being decided by the coup and Haitian Army’s leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras. Only the intervention of the French Ambassador Jean Rafael Dufour saved Aristide’s life. He was sent into exile in Venezuela.

Support for President Aristide’s Overthrow and Foreign Military Intervention

On Oct. 2, 1991, the Organization of American States (OAS) held an extraordinary emergency session at its headquarters in Washington, DC. In its immense marble “Hall of the Americas,” OAS diplomats voiced their outrage at the coup, as did hundreds of Haitians demonstrating their support for Aristide outside.

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on Oct. 2, 1991: “Until President Aristide’s government is restored, this junta will be treated as a pariah, without friends, without support, and without a future.”

“This junta is illegal,” Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker solemnly declared. “Until President Aristide’s government is restored, this junta will be treated as a pariah, without friends, without support, and without a future. This coup must not and will not succeed… It is imperative that we agree for the sake of Haitian democracy and the cause of democracy throughout the hemisphere, to act collectively to defend the legitimate government of President Aristide.”

Two days later, on Oct. 4, Bush held a 20-minute discussion and a photo-op with Aristide at the White House. It was, of course, too good to be true.

Over the weekend of Oct. 5-6, 1991, the Bush administration’s reproach swivelled 180 degrees to focus on President Aristide’s human rights record, thus signaling their implicit support of the coup.

“It is the rule of democracy that we support,” White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater announced on Mon., Oct. 7. “We don’t know [if Aristide will return to power] in the sense that the government in his country is changing and considering any number of different possibilities.”  Fitzwater argued that Aristide’s had relied on “mob rule,” a theme which was bleated in dutiful unison throughout the mainstream media.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater on Oct. 7, 1991: “We don’t know [if Aristide will return to power] in the sense that the government in his country is changing and considering any number of different possibilities.”
“Returning President Aristide to Haiti is going to be difficult for reasons to which he himself has greatly contributed,” opined the Washington Post on Oct. 6. “The president is a hero to the desperate people who live in the slums of Port-au-Prince… He has organized them into an instrument of real terror… He has left the country deeply polarized between his followers and the substantial numbers of people who have reason to fear them.”

In November 1991, almost a month later, President Bush implemented a trade and oil embargo on the coup regime as recommended by UN and OAS resolutions. However, the embargo was tough only on paper; the Bush administration never enforced it. As months passed, the completely porous embargo became a symbol of the Bush administration’s contempt for Aristide’s return.

The U.S. Embassy worked in league with Duvalierists to bring about the coup, President Aristide’s closest aides asserted. The Bush administration’s embassy carried out a series of charades for the Haitian people and world public opinion, posturing against the coup, but effectively doing nothing. The U.S. strategy was to drive Aristide to surrender to neo-Duvalierism and imperialism, by striking a deal with the coup leaders and inviting foreign military intervention.

In June 1992, Marc Bazin, the former World Bank official who lost to Aristide in the December 1990 election, was designated by Haiti’s military rulers as the new de facto Prime Minister.

Bazin had consistently supported the Sep. 30 coup and opposed the ensuing hemispheric embargo. “For years, Haitian intellectuals and political activists, particularly those on the left, have referred to United States policy as the ‘American Plan,’ which they said was intended to prevent Haiti’s development so as to preserve it as a cheap labor pool,” wrote the New York Time‘s correspondent Howard French on Jun. 7, 1992. “To many of these Haitians, nobody was more associated with this supposed policy than the 60-year-old Mr. Bazin.”

Former World Bank economist and Haitian presidential candidate Marc Bazin became Haiti’s de facto prime minister in June 1992.

The Times noted Bazin’s “long cozy relations with Washington” and reported that “Administration officials believe that [the Bazin nomination] was a step forward by those now in control in Port-au-Prince, and that further progress depends on Father Aristide’s willingness to compromise.”

In fact, the Bush administration put intense pressure on Aristide to meet with Bazin, Haitian Army representatives, the OAS, and United States officials in the Dominican Republic to strike a deal.

Meanwhile, pressure also came through a disinformation campaign from several quarters (including Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, former District of Columbia congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy, and Americas Watch) against Aristide’s pristine human rights record.

Emboldened by or in cahoots with the attacks on Aristide, the Bush Administration said it was investigating avenues for sending a “multinational peace-keeping force” into Haiti. The intervention would enforce a solution under which “the army would be included in the selection by consensus of a prime minister to serve under President Aristide,” according to the Jun. 6, 1992 New York Times. In a clear ultimatum to Aristide, the Times noted that “the United States Administration may be getting ready to back away from support of Father Aristide if he does not agree to another prime minister and the introduction of an OAS force.”

“U.S. military intervention would be aimed not at dislodging the wealthy interests which seized power with the coup but rather at protecting them,” said a Jun. 10, 1992 statement by the Haiti Commission, an independent human rights group headed by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.  “The purpose would be to preempt the growing popular rebellion… To date, the Bush Administration has shown, in deeds, no real backing for Aristide’s return, and the U.S. has historically sought to cripple movements in Latin America led by nationalists like President Aristide and the Lavalas movement, which remains an inspiration for other national democratic struggles… By sabotaging all serious attempts to restore President Aristide during the last eight months, the U.S. has helped to create the conditions it now cites as justifications for military intervention.”

(To be continued)

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