Character Assassination of President Aristide
by Ben Dupuy
excerpted from the book
War, Lies & Videotape
International Action Center, 2000
Haiti, it is well-known, is the only country in world history
which carried out a successful slave revolution. It began in 1791,
on the heels of the French Revolution. The man who led the slave
armies through most of our 1 3-year liberation war was a former
slave named Toussaint Louverture.
While much can be said about his military genius, Toussaint
was above all a master in the art of what we might call "
diplomatic guile." In other words, he sometimes pretended
to go along with his powerful adversaries-variously the French,
English, and Spanish-in order to accomplish his goal, the abolition
of slavery (at least in its classical form).
One modern figure who has deeply studied and borrowed from
Toussaint's tactics is Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Just as Toussaint
attempted to advance his people's interests by sometimes fighting
against the French, then sometimes working with them, Aristide
has been locked in a similar dance with Haiti's principal adversary
in this century: the United States.
The debate about the viability or correctness of using Toussaint's
tactics in the 20th century can be left for another time. But
one thing is certain: President Aristide has fallen in and out
of favor with leading sectors of the U.S. ruling class and government
on several occasions, offering a very revealing case study of
how the mainstream corporate media has alternately demonized or
glorified him as a leader, not on the basis of his support from
or attachment to the masses, but according to his professed attitude
toward U.S. business interests and U.S. government dictates.
Let us briefly review a little history.
First we must recall that Jean-Bertrand Aristide emerged in
Haiti as a liberation theologian with an anti-imperialist message.
" Capitalism is a mortal sin" was one of the refrains
of the fiery sermons he would deliver at a church located in the
La Saline slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
Although his prestige in Haiti was growing, the U.S. corporate
press made little mention of him, even though the U.S. Embassy
in Haiti was watching his rise very carefully.
Of course, the U.S. mainstream media could no longer ignore
him when he announced he was running for president in October
1990, thereby unleashing the euphoric uprising known as the "
Lavalas," or flood.
The initial portrayal of Aristide by the mainstream press
in that pre-election period is typified by the comment of Howard
French in the New York Times on Nov. 12, 1990, who said Aristide
was " a mix of [Iran's Ayatollah] Khomeini and [Cuba's Fidel]
But of course, it was hard to frontally attack a man who came
to power, not through a revolution, but through elections which
the U. S. government had sponsored and paid for.
So all the mainstream press could do after Aristide's overwhelming
victory on Dec. 16, 1990 was to try to intimidate him. The New
York Times in a Dec. 18 editorial warned Aristide that he had
" acquired a duty to respect the constitutional procedures
that assured his victory" and "to be patient, and to
preach patience," cautioning that he "can now become
either the father of Haitian democracy, or just one more of its
Well, we know who ended up betraying Haitian democracy. The
U.S. government through its CIA would work with Duvalierism to
overthrow Aristide after less than 8 months in power with a bloody
coup on September 30, 1991.
Rather than condemning the coup, the mainstream press began
attacking Aristide. "Returning President Aristide to Haiti
is going to be difficult for reasons to which he himself has greatly
contributed," stated a Washington Post editorial on Oct.
6, 1991. The next day, the Post reported that Aristide had a "
seeming disregard of legal structures" and cited " independent
observers and diplomats" who charged that the he " repeatedly
has used explicit and implicit threats of mob violence. "
" Mob violence." If you look through the mainstream
press clippings for the period immediately after the coup, you
will see this refrain throughout. According to Katie Orenstein
of the NACLA Review of the Americas, " during the two-week
period after the coup, the New York Times spent over three times
as many column inches discussing Aristide's alleged transgressions
than it spent reporting on the ongoing military repression. Mass
murders, executions and tortures that were later reported in human
rights publications earned less than 4% of the space that the
Times devoted to Haiti in those weeks."
Even during the coup that removed Aristide, the mainstream
press never stopped casting suspicion on him. American negotiations
with the putschists were promptly initiated, but Aristide was
always portrayed as " intransigent" and " inflexible,"
even though he was making the concessions and the putschists were
scuttling every deal. But Haitians in the diaspora maintained
constant demonstrations in support of Aristide and against the
coup. The Democrats in the United States took advantage of this
movement to help build support for Bill Clinton's 1992 election.
This is where there emerged a difference between the two factions
of the U. S. ruling class. President George Bush and the Republicans
were perfectly happy to leave Aristide permanently in exile and
work with their old allies, the Haitian military and Duvalierists.
The Clinton administration decided to attempt to coopt Aristide
and to force him to accept what is known in Haiti as "the
American plan." The essence of this plan is to discard justice
and reconcile with Duvalierist criminals, and also to "structurally
adjust" the Haitian economy, that is, privatize profitable
state enterprises, lower tariff walls, lay off state employees,
mainly from schools and hospitals, and slash social subsidies
Of course, even if Aristide were to accept the deal, Washington
felt he could not really be trusted, so U.S. troops would have
to militarily occupy the country as an insurance policy.
Well, the Republicans didn't like this arrangement at all.
Neither did the " invisible government" in the U. S.,
that is, the Pentagon and the CIA. Therefore, the CIA began pumping
up a death-squad in Haiti known as the FRAPH, which they called
a " counterweight" to the Lavalas.
The FRAPH and CIA coordinated their strategies. First, the
FRAPH staged a demonstration with a few dozen thugs at the Port-au-Prince
wharf on Oct. 11, 1993, so that the Pentagon had an excuse to
withdraw its troop carrier the Harlan County which was to off-load
200 U.S. and Canadian soldiers. Then, the following week, Brian
Latell, the CIA's chief Latin American analyst, launched an offensive
in the U.S. Congress and mainstream media to portray Aristide
as "mentally unstable" and a "murderer and psychopath,"
while the coup's leader General Raoul Cedras, and his cohorts
came from "the most promising group of Haitian leaders to
emerge since the Duvalier family." Henry Kissinger went on
TV to call him " a psychopath." Right-wing politician
Patrick Buchanan called him " a blood-thirsty little socialist."
Despite the "invisible government's" temporary victory
in stopping Aristide's return in 1993, Haiti kept coming back
to haunt the U.S. Repression continued and refugees kept flooding
out of the country, eventually forcing the Clinton Administration
to reconsider the return of Aristide to Haiti under U S supervision.
This time the Clinton administration opted for a massive military
invasion of 20,000 U.S. troops on Sept. 19 1 994. '
When President Aristide agreed to this intervention, along
with the structural adjustment program, there was a major shift
in the portrayal of Aristide. He was warily praised as a 'statesman"
who had " matured" and become more " realistic."
He was the prodigal son, perhaps.
" I think the best thing that has happened to Aristide
and his administration-in-exile is that they have had a crash
course in democracy and capitalism, and come to understand that
too much revolution scares away investors. Small countries can't
afford too much social experimentation," said former Ambassador
Robert E. White, a Carter Center agent, in the Boston Globe shortly
after the invasion.
Time magazine also spoke candidly about Clinton Administration
reasoning. "For the next 17 months or so, the U.S. must pin
its hopes on Aristide. His 1990 election victory gives him an
aura of legitimacy no other Haitian figure can come close to matching
[note: 67.5% of the vote usually earns legitimacy, not its aura];
the U.S. can hardly pretend to be restoring Haitian democracy
if it backs anyone else. If he is a leftist and no admirer of
the U. S.-well, in a perverse way, that makes American intervention
easier to defend against possible cries of Yanqui imperialism.
Instead of overthrowing a populist reformer to install a military
dictatorship friendly to the U.S., Washington will be doing the
Two or three months after his return, since there was no revolution,
the corporate media was thinking they had won him over. Consider
a Dec. 1, 1994 Washington Post article which quotes an official
to provide the proper spin: "'He is doing more than we ever
dreamed he would. He is doing everything right,' gushed a senior
U.S. official who had long privately expressed doubts about Aristide.
'It's like a dream."'
But the dream didn't last for long. As 1995 progressed, friction
between Aristide and the U.S. began to surface.
Soon the laments over the assassination of the putschist political
figure, Mireille Durocher Bertin, became a full-fledged trial
of the Aristide government, which was accused of the murder. U.S.
government officials said that the killing was "masterminded"
by Haitian Interior Minister Mondesir Beaubrun, who vehemently
denied the charge.
Leading the new attacks on Aristide were coup supporters like
reactionary columnist Robert Novak, who claimed in an April 3,
1995 column to have unearthed an "enemies list compiled by
President Aristide's supporters." Novak went on to assert
that "it is common knowledge in Haiti that a shadow government
is headed by notorious former prime minister Rene Preval"
who oversees a " commando unit greatly feared by the political
opposition" as well as "the flow of weapons to the commando
units" through the coastal town of St. Marc. His insinuation
was that the supposed "commando unit" rubbed out Bertin.
One might dismiss Novak's allegations of a 30-person "hit
list" and other sinister acts as the mere rantings of the
conservative fringe. But the same day, the Associated Press reported
that Bertin "was among more than 100 people on a hit list
discovered by the U. S. government days before the slaying."
Other reports speak of a 96-person list. The simultaneous discovery
of supposed "hit lists" point to a typical U.S. government
/ mainstream media coordinated campaign.
On April 4, the Washington Post launched another missile.
Writer Douglas Farah said he was not "suggesting Aristide
knew of or sanctioned the killing," but noted that Aristide's
"unwillingness to take steps against Beaubrun, despite heavy
U.S. pressure and the advice of some of his closest advisers has
revived old questions about the president's willingness to tolerate
abuses among those who have shown loyalty to him." The assumption
here, of course, is that Beaubrun is guilty! No trial, no evidence,
just the accusation of the U.S. government and its media.
Other conflicts began to develop as Aristide disbanded the
Army, resisted U.S. plans to double the size of the police force
and dragged his feet on privatizing the state enterprises. In
October 1995, Aristide's pro-neoliberal prime minister Smarck
Michel quit in frustration. "Relations between Mr. Aristide's
Government and the United Nations coalition that brought him back
to power have been fraying since Prime Minister Smarck Michel
stepped down," said the New York Times
Then on Nov. 7, Aristide's cousin, Deputy Jean-Hubert Feuille,
was assassinated. When Aristide ordered Haitian authorities to
arrest former Haitian dictator General Prosper Avril for possible
involvement in the murder, the U.S. intervened to protect Avril.
The U.S.'s meddling set the stage for a dramatic speech Aristide
gave at the Port-au-Prince cathedral on Nov. 11.
Standing before U.S. and UN officials, Aristide assailed their
policies in Haiti. "The game of hypocrisy is over,"
he said. He condemned the failure of the UN occupation forces
to help disarm anti-democratic forces, particularly the rich and
powerful in their big houses. "We say again that peace must
reign here, and for this peace to reign, there must be no accomplices,"
Aristide said, referring to the U.S./UN troops. "The big
guns of the international community are here to accompany the
Haitian police to disarm all the criminals, all the terrorists,
all the extremists," Aristide said. "If not, I'm going
to tell them it's over. . . I'm saying now, whosoever tries to
block the legal operation of disarmament, if they're Haitian,
we'll arrest them, if they're not Haitian, we'll send them back
to their parents," he said in the mostly Creole speech.
Well, you can imagine the reaction of the U.S. government
and corporate press. The Nov. 19 New York Times reported on "Mr.
Aristide's tirade" saying that "foreign officials who
have been working closely with the Aristide Government in efforts
to build democracy here after nearly three decades of dictatorship
[dictatorships which the U.S. government supported economically
and militarily] described themselves as shocked and even betrayed
by the President's unexpected behavior."
The Times's editorial on Nov. 26, entitled "Mr. Aristide's
Deadly Rhetoric," said that he had " alarmingly reverted
to the demagogic political style that scarred his Presidency before
the 1991 military coup that forced him into exile. That earlier
performance, which included incitements to mob violence, [there's
that word again] planted reasonable doubts about his commitment
to the rule of law and fanned suggestions he was not fit to run
the country.... America's ally in Haiti is democracy, not any
individual politician. If Mr. Aristide means to prove his critics
right and destroy Haiti's chance for democracy, he should not
have American help."
So there you have it. Democracy is threatened not because
the U.S. and UN occupying forces have shielded Tonton Macoutes
(as Duvalierist thugs are called) and putschist criminals from
arrest and prosecution, allowing them to hide and use their vast
arsenals of weapons to create the worst climate of violence and
insecurity which the country has ever seen. It is not because
the austerity policies of the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund have ruined farmers, destroyed small businessmen, and impoverished
a country that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
It is because of " Mr. Aristide's tirade" and those
unruly " Haitian mobs."
In these same articles and editorials, all the mainstream
press clamored in unison that Aristide and his supporters might
want him to recoup the three years he spent in exile. "He
may go back on his pledge to the United States and try to extend
his term past its scheduled end next February," warned the
New York Times. The New York Daily News said that Aristide was
"becoming tiresome. The man who had to be prodded to say
thanks to the 20,000 Yanks who restored him to power now is talking
about ignoring his pledge-and the Haitian constitution-to step
down early next year." Now who gives the U.S. government
and its hireling press the right to interpret the Haitian constitution?
Where in the constitution does it say that the clock is ticking
on a president's term when he is removed from power by a bloody
coup? The Constitution says nothing about what to do in case of
a coup, and if a determination is to be made, it should be by
the Haitian people, not Washington and its subservient media.
To make a long story short, the OPL or Lavalas Political Organization,
the party which was formed to support the national democratic
Lavalas agenda, made a deal with the U S betrayed Aristide, and
ran Rene Preval for President. Aristide finally acquiesced and
turned over power to Preval on Feb. 7 1996, with the parting shot
of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
In the two years since that time, Aristide established the
Aristide Foundation for Democracy, which has launched a credit
union, a food cooperative, and a children's radio station among
other things. Many mass meetings take place at the Foundation's
He also founded a new party, the Fannli Lavalas, which largely
won legislative and municipal elections held on April 6, 1997.
The OPL has refused to accept the election results and has launched
what Aristide has called " a coup d'etat which is revised,
corrected and improved." The result is that the country has
been without a prime minister since last June and without even
a caretaker government since last October. The OPL has blocked
in the Parliament every prime minister proposed by President Preval.
But if you read the mainstream press, who do they say is responsible
for Haiti's deadlock? You guessed it: Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
For example, "Aristide: An Obstacle to Haiti's Progress"
was the title of a Jun. 29, 1997 news/analysis piece by the Miami
Herald 's Haiti correspondent Don Bohning. " The onetime-priest-turned-politician.
. . is simultaneously the country's most popular figure and one
of the biggest obstacles to its progress. And there are those
who see him as a threat to democracy itself."
Why is Aristide now seen as such an " obstacle"
when he is out of office: because he has become an outspoken critic
of neoliberalism. In a bipartisan U.S. Congressional report from
June 1997, which the Herald and other mainstream media heavily
publicized, Aristide is taken to task. "The lack of a strong
leader-particularly given Aristide's renewed prominent role in
economic and political questions-poses a serious threat to U.S.
interests in privatization and economic reform in Haiti,"
the report says.
And, for the U.S. government and mainstream media, there is
no greater sin than being a nationalist. . . well, except being
a blood-thirsty little socialist.
Meanwhile, President Preval, who has embraced the neoliberal
austerity package, has become the new darling. Take this June
11, 1996 Herald report: "I think President Preval has done
a fantastic job. He has really taken the bull by the horns and
said 'either we are going to sit around and do nothing, or we
will move forward on economic reforms,'" an official of a
multilateral aid organization said. " You really get a feeling
that things are moving. It's not the usual lethargy." Or
here is Don Bohning's Feb. 13, 1997 glowing portrait of Preval
in the Miami Herald: " Relaxed and informal, he responded
to questions candidly with an occasional flash of humor."
Other characterizations: "Low-key and unpretentious"
or "Preval's modesty and low-key personality."
In recent months, as the crisis has dragged on, the press
has begun to criticize Preval for not acting strongly enough in
support of the " American plan" and against Aristide.
Thus, when one follows the American guidelines, one is rewarded.
Depart from them, and you will feel the whip.
So this is why they now attack Aristide regularly for blocking
everything in Haiti because he no longer plays along. Take for
example a Mar. 20, 1998 Miami Herald article by Bohning entitled
"Political impasse puts elections at risk in Haiti."
He claims that Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas has " refused to
go along" with elections in Haiti.
This isn't only bad spin, it's just plain false. The Fanmi
Lavalas has been calling for elections to continue. And how can
it block elections? Aristide's party has no members in the executive
branch or in the parliament. The mainstream press doesn't castigate
and vilify the OPL, even though this party has blocked three different
attempts to ratify a new Haitian prime minister. But if OPL were
aligned with Aristide, you would see it in the headlines and on
your TV every day.
As you all know, the sheer volume of disinformation is so
vast that it is difficult to show or repudiate anything more than
a small fraction of it. There are so many other lies and distortions
to denounce. But I will finish with the latest and most insidious
mainstream media campaign.
To show the insidious nature, I just want to give a little
anecdote. When we were coordinating President Aristide's participation
in this conference-airfares, hotels, and the like-we encountered
some financial obstacles. One of the conference organizers, who
will remain nameless, asked "Why are we going through all
of this? Doesn't Aristide have money? " Here is a very conscious,
engaged, and progressive person helping to organize a conference
to combat the big media's lies, who has unconsciously absorbed
the media's lies. This shows you the power we are up against.
So this is their new campaign: to portray Aristide as a "
millionaire," who is corrupt and manipulative and living
in a palace. Take the lead of this April 5, 1997 Reuters piece:
"Ensconced in a luxury villa behind pink walls, Haiti's former
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide still wears the mantle of a champion
of the poor as he snipes at the government of his successor and
A May 14, 1998 article in the LA Times is another good example
of the smear job being attempted. The article relies chiefly on
two Aristide critics. Let's hear one of them: "After he came
back in 1994, Aristide got the taste of power," said Gerald
Dalvius, an opposition politician who has announced his presidential
aspirations for 2000. "Now he only believes in power. Maybe
he looked for the money to get the power or maybe to make more
Let's hear the other: " In every case, I believe power
changes people, but in the case of Aristide more than any other,
power aggravated the true personality," said Gerard-Pierre
Charles, leader of the OPL. Pierre-Charles also compared Aristide
to Duvalier, accused him of being " fascist," of smuggling
arms into Haiti, and then " blamed Aristide for the political
impasse that has paralyzed Haiti."
In short, Aristide is a devil in the eyes of the U.S. government
and the mainstream press because he criticizes their plans for
Haiti. He is the "obstacle," the great manipulator,
the "threat to democracy." Well, the real manipulator,
the real threat to democracy is the corporate media and more generally
the capitalist system of which it is a pillar. In " Corporate
Media and the Threat to Democracy" professor Robert McChesney
tells us that "fewer than 10 colossal vertically integrated
media conglomerates now dominate U.S. media," companies like
Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom and TCI.
I think most of the participants in this conference are already
pretty clear about the undemocratic, distorting, and falsifying
nature of the corporate mainstream media. But the question is
what is to be done, how to fight back.
To our way of thinking, there is no way to "reform"
the mainstream media, to make it more reliable or truthful. It
is not just a bad approach or policy. The mainstream media, just
like the state, functions to preserve and defend the interests
of monopoly capitalism, and can only function that way.
We might win some media battles, build some media alternatives,
denounce the lies, and raise consciousness about the corporate
media in various ways. We print Haiti Progress each week as some
kind of antidote to and analysis of all the lies they spread each
However, the only real solution is to take control of the
means of communication from the increasingly tiny ruling class
which also owns all the means of production. A truly democratic
media will only result from the revolutionary change of capitalist
society. Let us use every media resource :possible in our fight
to reach that end.
Lies & Videotape