The Miami Herald
Mon, Mar. 01, 2004

Pressures, fear for life led to exit

Aristide's fear for his life as rebels neared and international pressure forced him to give up power and allow the U.S. and France to arrange his departure.

BY FRANK DAVIES

WASHINGTON - For President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, international pressure to step down had an impact, but his quick exit Sunday came down to a simple truth: He would probably be killed if he stayed.

With armed rebels converging on Port-au-Prince, he was going to lose power and he could not trust his own security forces. A bloodbath in the capital became more likely the longer he stayed.

That is the conclusion of U.S. and international diplomats who participated in and monitored the last two days of talks with Aristide, and one of his closest advisors.

''For Aristide, it was coming down to leaving on a Learjet or in a body bag,'' said one participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

When Aristide decided to leave, U.S. officials provided security and may have employed some trickery. Aristide thought he was going to South Africa, where he has close ties, but instead is likely to be sent to the Central African Republic, said one U.S. official.

Aristide had long vowed to stay in power until his term ended in 2006. But in the last 24 hours before he resigned and left Port-au-Prince at 6:15 a.m. Sunday, he realized his shaky hold on power -- and his own safety -- was threatened by two developments:

U.S., French and Canadian officials were all urging him to leave. Any international support he once had disappeared with the images Saturday of rioting and looting by pro-Aristide gangs.

''When he called out his thugs into the streets last week to kill and loot, that was it. The French said enough. We said enough,'' said a former U.S. official involved in some of the consultations.

Aristide's life was in danger. A heavily armed National Police unit of 60 men had basically stopped taking his orders, said Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who represented the Aristide government. The president also feared that his bodyguards from a San Francisco-based security firm could leave him at the mercy of rebels, who would probably kill him, senior U.S. officials say.

Kurzban, who last talked with Aristide by phone Saturday afternoon, said Aristide seemed fine at the time and that he was surprised by the swift exit. But he added that Aristide knew his security was becoming more tenuous.

He said Aristide reported that he had received a warning from U.S. officials that ``we're not going to do anything to stop these guys, and they are going to kill you.''

One senior U.S. official said several guards from the Steele Foundation, the firm Aristide hired for protection, had called the U.S. Embassy asking whether Marines would come to their rescue if the rebels seized the palace.

The answer: Don't count on it.

By Saturday afternoon, Aristide realized ''a cataclysm would happen and all the dominoes were cascading around him,'' a U.S. official said.

Senior Bush administration officials say Aristide gave the first signal of willingness to resign shortly after 8 p.m., in a phone conversation with U.S. Ambassador James Foley. He asked whether if he departed, ''his personal security and the security of some of his Cabinet members would be respected,'' a senior administration official told The Herald.

''Foley, after consulting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, responded that we thought that the Haitian people were being hurt by this political impasse and violence, and essentially offered President Aristide a secure way to leave the country,'' the official said.

Powell worked the phones, making three dozen calls to the foreign ministers of France, Argentina, Jamaica and Panama and the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

Powell ''spent the whole night working this one,'' said one U.S. official.

The international pressure had been building for several days as the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and then Powell and the Canadian minister, Bill Graham, urged Aristide to leave.

Watching pro-Aristide gunmen ''trash the city'' on Friday and Saturday accelerated the international efforts, one senior official said.

Aristide agreed to issue a call for peace before he left, and insisted that his Lavalas Family Party have some role in a future government, one international diplomat said.

Aristide hastily drafted a statement that was read by his prime minister, Yvon Neptune. ''If tonight my resignation is the decision that can avoid a bloodbath, I consent to leave with hope there will be life, not death,'' he wrote.

U.S. officials say Aristide was flown to Africa on a private plane contracted by U.S. officials. Under a deal arranged by France, Aristide was told he would fly to South Africa, but he was really bound for the Central African Republic, U.S. officials said.

By late Sunday, Aristide followers were alleging that Aristide had been forced to resign at gunpoint or under threat of physical harm.

''By 3 a.m. the White House said that if he doesn't leave they are going to kidnap him,'' said the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a former Miami priest who returned to Haiti to work for Aristide.

The Bush administration defended its efforts to force Aristide's departure as the only way to prevent widespread bloodshed, and said Aristide was largely to blame for the monthlong rebellion.

Critics accused U.S. officials of favoring the ouster all along. Jesse Jackson called Aristide's resignation ``an American-assisted coup.''

Two realities were not in dispute Sunday. Powell's Haitian involvement had come full circle. Ten years ago he helped Aristide return to power by persuading Haitian military leaders who had ousted Aristide to step down.

And in a country with a long history of political violence, Aristide Sunday achieved a dubious distinction: the first Haitian president to be deposed twice.

Herald staff writers Andres Oppenheimer, Juan O. Tamayo and Jacqueline Charles in Miami and Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.