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] Castro."

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 many betrayers."

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 and price-supports.

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 exact opposite."

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 large auditorium.

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 one-time ally."

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 money."

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 week.

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.

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