By journalists who covered Haïti during the 2001 to 2004 era
Submitted to AlterPresse on June 4, 2022
We, the undersigned, read with great interest the recent New York Times project “The Ransom,” which, in the main, examined the odious extortion by the government of France of 112 million francs (about $560 million today) from the newly independent nation of Haiti after forces there defeated the French army and abolished slavery in 1804. This is a very worthy subject for an investigation and, with the extraordinary resources at the disposal of the Times, we were happy to see it given such sustained attention.
Though there has been considerable controversy surrounding the proper crediting of some of the insights and areas of research that the journalists covered, this is not the focus of concern of this note. Rather, as journalists ourselves with many years combined experience working in Haiti who worked there during the 2001 to 2004 era, we were startled by the depiction of the second presidency of Jean-Betrand Aristide contained in the section titled “Demanding Reparations, and Ending Up in Exile,” authored by Constant Méheut, Catherine Porter, Selam Gebrekidan and Matt Apuzzo. It is fair to say that none of us recognized the principled figure the Times journalists - none of whom, it must be noted, were in Haiti at that time - depicted in their article nor the chain of events that led to his ouster in February 2004.
The main argument of the Times piece on Aristide appears to be that his overthrow was the result of a far-reaching plot between the United States and France to prevent him from collecting on the French debt, the owing of which he turned into a rhetorical device when his government was badly faltering in 2003. Certainly, there is evidence that the administration of then-U.S. President George W. Bush, in particular, encouraged some of the most recalcitrant elements of the Haitian opposition at this time,  and successive French governments have a long-documented history of duplicity in Haiti and elsewhere.  In its article, however, the Times journalists quote Thierry Burkard, who served as France’s ambassador to Haiti from August 2003 to December 2005, as saying that the United States “had effectively orchestrated ‘a coup’ against Mr. Aristide’’ [the direct quote has Burkard only saying “a coup,” the characterization beforehand and after comes from the Times journalists themselves] and that Aristide’s overthrow was “probably a bit about” his call for reparations from France. Another former French ambassador to Haiti, Philippe Selz, who served in his role first as chargé d’affaires and then as full ambassador years earlier, from 1992 to 1995 and was serving as ambassador to Djibouti in 2004, is quoted as saying a decision had been made “to extradite the president, to send him away.” These are striking statements, but unfortunately no evidence is presented to support or check these claims, they simply appear to be accepted by the Times at face value and are then used to seemingly support Aristide’s oft-repeated claim that he had been “kidnapped’’ rather than resigned, a claim which the Times then repeats as if the only contradictory narrative exists from U.S. government officials.
By the time of his flight from Haiti in the early morning hours of 29 February 2004, it was well known that Aristide had grown so distrustful of Haitians that he largely entrusted his personal security to the California-based Steele Foundation private security company, whose CEO, Kenneth Kurtz, subsequently said that “we were with the president when he left the country…We took direction directly – and only – from the president…The mission of our company is to protect the head of state from assassination, kidnapping, and embarrassment, and that’s what we did.”  Kurtz’s version of events was supported by National Palace security agent Casimir Chariot, who said that the men who escorted Aristide to the airport “were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces…These were not people who came with handcuffs to handcuff the president. These were men who came to assure the security of the delegation…It was all done very calmly.”  Aristide’s own Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, told Haiti’s Radio Kiskeya in 2010 that Aristide had indeed resigned and that the president’s letter of resignation “was genuine.”  Neptune would also say that he had been “used” by Aristide, and characterized the former president as someone who allowed “no democracy” even within Fanmi Lavalas, the political party Aristide had founded, and that the party was run by “manipulators” disguised as “apostles of change and inclusion of the poor majority.” 
It is puzzling that the Times, while mentioning Aristide’s kidnapping claim, chose for some reason to leave these details out of their article.
Even more troubling than this one point, however, is the more general characterization of Mr. Aristide - portrayed as a virtuous, studious defender of Haiti’s national interest - and his government. The Times writes of “clashes between Mr. Aristide’s supporters and opponents’ ’ that “had grown violent” [as if some sort of naturally occurring phenomenon, like the weather] and that “Aristide’s government was accused of cracking down on dissent. Human rights groups said his police force and “pro-government thugs’’ were attacking opponents and the independent press.”
Regarding press freedom under Aristide’s government, the repression was no mere allegation. Following the April 2000 killing of journalist Jean Dominique, both the investigating judge, Claudy Gassant,  and police inspector Mario Andresol (later head of the Police Nationale d’Haïti),  as well as Dominique’s widow, Michèle Montas,  all stated that Aristide’s government had meddled in and undermined the investigation into the murder. In 2014, nine people, many with links to Aristide and Lavalas, were indicted for the murder.  One of the key witnesses in the case was Aristide’s former security chief, Oriel Jean, who had returned to Haiti after serving a sentence for drug trafficking in the United States and had given extended testimony to the investigating judge.  Jean was subsequently murdered on the streets of Port-au-Prince after giving a long interview to the Haitian journalist Guy Delva where he detailed what he claimed was the plot Aristide had hatched to “subdue” Dominique.  Journalist Brignol Lindor was hacked to death by a pro-Aristide mob in December 2001  and others fled the country during his presidency. 
Regarding corruption, the Unite Centrale de Renseignements Financiers (UCREF) one of two entities tasked with investigating the Aristide government’s corruption, concluded in 2005, based on its examinations, that during his tenure in office Aristide had siphoned off $21 million of Haiti’s resources to fictitious companies and his charities.  Indeed, at the time, when Mr. Aristide’s call for restitution from France began in 2003, his government had developed such a reputation for corruption that a joke circulated around Haiti that if France agreed to pay the multimillion dollar debt with the exception of “36 cents,” Aristide’s wistful response would be “but what will be left for the people?”
To those of us who were in Haiti during those years,“pro-government thugs” (in quotes), seems like a bit of an abstraction, and we can assure Times readers that they were terribly real. From his return from exile facilitated by the U.S. military in October 1994 to his subsequent flight into exile a decade later, opponents of Mr. Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas political party were harrassed, attacked, driven into exile and sometimes killed .
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize and leader of one of Hait’s largest peasant unions, was nearly murdered by a pro-Lavalas mob that included elected officials in the central town of Hinche in November 2000.  The headquarters of the political party of Evans Paul, Aristide’s campaign manager in 1990 who later went on to become the mayor of Port-au-Prince and Prime Minister, was burned down on three separate occasions by pro-government partisans once he ran afoul of Aristide.  Following a failed December 2001 attack on Haiti’s National Palace, pro-Aristide mobs terrorized government critics and destroyed their homes and party headquarters, including torchig the library of the Centre de recherche et de formation économique et sociale pour le développement (CRESFED), founded by the historian Suzy Castor,  and burning down the private library of the author and politician Gérard Pierre-Charles, who would later write that incinerated was “a whole collection of classics about Marxism, my books about Cuba, about 500, that had helped me write Genèse de la révolution cubaine.”  In December 2003, Haiti’s Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), headed by Michèle Pierre-Louis, who would go on to serve as Prime Minister under President René Préval, wrote of an attack by pro-government gangs on a university (which resulted in the crippling of the rector there after he was beaten by iron bars) by saying the following:
We saw groups of pro-government militia…regroup in front of our building, visibly preparing to attack the student demonstration scheduled for that day. We saw their arms displayed, ranging from firearms, wooden and iron sticks, rocks and other objects capable of hurting and killing. We saw their chiefs, men and women, also armed, equipped with walkie-talkies and cellular phones, organize and give orders to the commandos that were to attack the students. We saw the police, not neutral as has been reported, but acting as accomplices to the militia. On several occasions, during that day of horror and shame, the police opened the way for the chimere attack and also covered their backs. We saw children aged between twelve and fifteen, some in school uniforms, used by the Lavalas militia to throw rocks and attack the students with firearms. 
The killing of students leaders like Maxime Desulmond  and feminists like the microfinance expert Danielle Lustin further inflamed opposition to Aristide, and prompted the country’s four most prominent feminist organizations to denounce in October 2003 what they charged was a government indulging in “robbery, corruption and the waste of meager public funds to carry out its dirty propaganda. It is on the corpses, the mud and the rubbish that Lavalas intends to celebrate the 200 years of the independence of Haiti and this only with its supporters.” 
Many of the young men who formed the baz, or base, of the government’s armed groups, then known as the chimere, we got to know personally and found that many of their leaders had grown up in the orbit of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi home for street children and been gradually seduced into a life of violence in support of his political movement following his 1994 return. Virtually none of these young men made it out of their 20s alive. Watching an entire generation of bright young men lose their lives to Haiti’s political wars was bad enough, but having seen the baz model metastasize to such a degree that now, almost 20 years later, it has nearly taken over the country and involves multiple politicians from multiple parties, is heartbreaking.
It was from the pro-government gangs themselves, not from he meddling of foreign governments, that the armed rebellion against Aristide first began after the murder of Amiot Métayer, the leader of a particularly fierece armed group know the Lame Kanibal (Cannibal Army) from the Raboteau slum in the northern city of Gonaïves in September 2003. Metayer, a longtime Aristide partisan with a history of brutalizing government opponents in the city, had been briefly arrested by the Aristide government in August 2002 as a sop to some of his critics before being broken out of jail by his gang in spectacular fashion shortly thereafter and returning uneasily to the government fold.  With the Organization of American States still clamoring for Métayer’s arrest, the Aristide government made several entreaties for the gang leader to return to jail in exchange for money which Métayer refused, and threatened to “tell everything” should he be incarcerated.  On 21 September 2003, Métayer drove off from his base in the Raboteau slum of Gonaïves in the company of a former official of the Ministry of the Interior. The following day, Métayer’s body was found, his eyes carved out.  The New York Times itself reported on the murder at the time.  Believing that their leader had been murdered by the regime,  mass demonstrations erupted in Gonaïves, only to be brutally dispersed by government forces.  During Métayer’s funeral, hundreds of protesters chanted “Down with Aristide!” and clashed violently with police.  A 2 October 2003 raid on Raboteau and nearby Jubilé killed at least 15 people.  Lame Kanibal thus transformed into the Front de Résistance des Gonaïves.  The Front fought vicious battles against government security forces in Gonaïves for three months until, in February 2004, a group of rebels led by former police commander Guy Philippe and former army officer Louis-Jodel Chamblain crossed into Haiti from the Dominican Republic and joined their cause. 
As Aristide’s government teetered to a collapse, a series of ghastly killings took place around the country, most notably in the northern city of Saint-Marc. An armed anti-Aristide group, the Rassemblement des Militants Conséquents de Saint-Marc (RAMICOSM), based in the neighborhood of La Scierie, attempted to drive government forces from the town on 7 February 2004, seizing the local police station, which they set on fire. Two days later, the combined forces of the PNH, the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN) – a unit directly responsible for the president’s personal security – and the local pro-government paramilitary organization Bale Wouze (“Clean Sweep” in Haitian Creole) retook much of the city. By 11 February, Bale Wouze had commenced the battle to retake La Scierie. After government forces retook the town a textbook series of war crimes took place, including the murder of Kenol St. Gilles, a carpenter with no political affiliation, the decapitation of unarmed RAMICOSM member Leroy Joseph and a series of gang rapes in the ruins of the burned-out commissariat, while other residents were gunned down by police and armed civilians firing from a helicopter as they tried to flee over a nearby mountain.  Journalists who entered the town found the USGPN and Bale Wouze patrolling Saint-Marc as a single armed unit, “the two forces...so intertwined that when [Bale Wouze] head of security walks by, Haitian police officers salute him and call him commandant”  as “residents saw piles of corpses burning in an opposition neighborhood and watched as pro-Aristide forces fired at people scurrying up a hillside to flee.”  According to Anne Fuller, a Haiti veteran and fluent Creole speaker and a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited Saint-Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered there between 11 February and 29 February.  Her conclusion was supported by the reporting of the respected Haitian journalist Nancy Roc  and by the research of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR, since renamed as the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains), a Haitian human rights organization.  How this all went unmentioned in an article focused so closely on Aristide is somewhat mystifying.
The Times’ sourcing in this section is also curious. In the “A Look Under the Hood” section of the series, which presents readers with the ostensible heritage of some the Times insights into its writing, the authors declare that they have gleaned their knowledge of the 2001 to 2004 era in Haiti largely from three books written by non-Creole speaking foreigners: Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by Hilary Beckles, a Bajan historian with no particular expertise in Haiti who has credulously repeated Aristide’s claim that he was “kidnapped,” Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment and Randall Robinson’s An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President.
Hallward, a Canadian philosophy professor who freely admitted in the book in question that had “visited Haiti only twice” and had “no special interest in the peculiarities of Haitian society” produced a book that was viewed by many veteran Haiti observers as a deeply-flawed and often factually-challenged polemic that sought only to exculpate Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas. Upon the book’s publication, Paul Knox, the veteran foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail and who covered the overthrow of Aristide for that publication, charatized it in The Literary Review of Canada as “a Fanmi Lavalas manifesto” which dismissed all of Aristide’s Haitian critics as “either bought off, politically misguided or rotten from the start” and so blinkered by its binary political viewpoint that was it “only incidentally a book about Haiti.” 
As a source, the Robinson book is equally problematic, written by a close personal friend of Aristide who sat on the board of advisers of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy and whose wife’s lobbying firm was paid nearly $400,000 for its work on behalf of the Haitian government  (she had previously worked for former U.S. congressman Ron Dellums, whose own lobbying firm received nearly $1 million for its work for the Aristide government).  Perhaps not the most objective source to consider, Ironically, one of Robinson’s chief targets of ire in his defense of Aristide was Lydia Polgreen, then a New York Times correspondent covering Haiti, who Robinson boasted of keeping off a plane because she was insufficiently deferential in her coverage of Aristide, saying placidly that he was “surprised that she was black.” 
The books by journalists who were actually in Haiti at the time - Michael Deibert’s Notes from the Last Testament (2005) and Haiti Will Not Perish (2017), Kathie Klarreich’s Madame Dread and Gerry Hadden’s Never the Hope Itself (2011), all of which speak frankly of the violence that characterized Aristide’s second regime (and, indeed, the violence of some of his opponents) - are ignored, as are documentaries such as Arnold Antonin’s GNB Kont Attila (2004), Charles Najman’s La fin des chimères? (2004), David Adams’ Failing Haiti (2005) and Asger Leth’s Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006) and fictional depictions of the regime’s excesses such as that in the novel Bain de lune by Yanick Lahens (2014) or the film Moloch Tropical by Raoul Peck (2009). The Haiti witnessed by Trinidadian diplomat Reginald Dumas in his 2008 book An Encounter With Haiti, where he writes that Aristide “[acquired] for himself a reputation at home which did not match the great respect with which he was held abroad” is absent. Even the incisive, critical work of historians like Alex Dupuy, whose The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community, and Haiti (2006) concludes that “when he left in February 2004, Aristide had become a discredited, corrupted and increasingly authoritarian president who had betryward the truest and aspirations of the poor majority” is ignored by the Times’ in this section out of apparent eagerness to craft a compelling - but historically inaccurate - narrative.
The question we ask ourselves: If the Times journalists did, as they state, immerse themselves in “thousands of pages of original documents, and hundreds of books,” how did they get this particular aspect of the story so wrong? How could they not know? It is a mystery, though it is fair to agree with the assessment in a Tweet by Patrick Gaspard, the Haitian-American former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and current head of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, that the omission represents “the inexplicable whitewashing of the internal violence and corruption in the Aristide era that can’t just be explained away by pointing to France and the US.”
We strongly believe that the various international actors who have for so long wronged Haiti should be held to account. However, we also believe that this cannot be done by sanitizing the history of the country’s own political actors and encouraging yet more impunity over the bones of the nation’s unquiet dead, so many of whom still call out for justice.
David C. Adams
St. Petersburg Times 1994-2009
Jean Michel Caroit
Le Monde 1987-2019
Journalist, author and Researcher at the Centro de Estudos Internacionais at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa
National Public Radio 2000-2004
Journalist and anthropologist
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