Aristide Back in Caribbean Heat
Before Arriving in Jamaica, Haitian Details 'Coup' by U.S.
By Peter Eisner
Washington Post Foreign Service
KINGSTON, Jamaica, March 15 -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide stepped back into the white glare of a Caribbean afternoon Monday, wearing a broad smile and the same dark suit he had on two weeks ago when he was banished from the presidency of Haiti and deposited into exile half a world away.
"We're here. It's unbelievable, but true," Aristide said, leaning forward in his seat as a chartered Gulfstream jet taxied toward the end of a 17-hour flight from the Central African Republic, where he and his wife had been living in a government guesthouse since his ouster on Feb. 29.
Even before the plane touched down, Aristide's return was condemned by Haiti's interim government and its supporters in the Bush administration. Haiti's interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, suspended diplomatic relations with Jamaica to protest the invitation to Aristide, who will be 115 miles from the Haitian coast during his temporary stay.
During an extended interview on the flight, Aristide was adamant that he remained Haiti's legitimate leader, but was coy about his plans. "Let us be wise enough to continue to listen to the voice of the Haitian people," he said. "They will always know I cannot forget their suffering."
Aristide said he hoped his supporters in Haiti would find comfort in his proximity. "I do believe many Haitians who are poor or suffering, or in hiding, think that if I am closer physically, it's better for them instead of being far away," he said.
The mission to return Aristide to the region was organized by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Randall Robinson, former president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington lobbying and research group, and Aristide's Miami attorney, Ira Kurzban. He was greeted at the Kingston airport by Jamaica's prime minister, P. J. Patterson.
Jamaican officials have said Aristide would visit for eight to 10 weeks so he and his wife, Mildred Trouillot, could be reunited with their two young daughters, who had been dispatched for safety to the United States. Aristide and his wife boarded a helicopter at the airport and headed for a rural guesthouse offered by the Jamaican prime minister.
During the interview, Aristide gave a detailed account of what he alleged was "a coup and a modern-day kidnapping" carried out by the United States. U.S. officials have disputed his account, made previously in telephone interviews and through intermediaries. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has characterized his claims as "absurd." The deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Luis Moreno, said in an interview earlier this month that Aristide willingly accepted the terms of departure and signed a letter of resignation.
Aristide's version of the events differed markedly from that of U.S. officials.
The ousted president said that he had been conferring with U.S. Ambassador James Foley about ways of avoiding violence and bloodshed in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 28. An armed insurgency -- led by former members of Haiti's feared military, which Aristide had disbanded, and onetime death squad leaders -- was threatening to attack the capital the following day.
Aristide said Foley agreed that he should go with an American escort to a location where he could appear on television to appeal for calm.
"I wanted to talk to the press, as I did the night before for more than one hour and a half talking to the people through the national TV," Aristide said. "This was my responsibility. And I could do it again and again each time as was necessary."
But he said that by the time Moreno arrived at his residence on the morning on Feb. 29, U.S. troops were surrounding it. Aristide said he felt threatened by the Americans, who told him that "thousands of people including me would be killed."
"I know there were American military and maybe other militaries from other countries. I cannot say only Americans," Aristide said. "But there were a considerable number."
Aristide said he left in a car with the Americans, who said they could provide security. "But instead of moving from where we were at my house" to meet with news media, Aristide said, "we went straight to the plane," which he described as an unmarked white aircraft with an American flag.
Aristide said he was obliged to board the plane, and was followed by a number of U.S. troops in full combat gear, who changed into civilian clothes and baseball caps once they were aboard the plane. Also on board with him and his wife were 19 members of a private security company contracted by the United States to protect Aristide.
Aristide's account was supported by two witnesses present on the evening of Feb. 28 and the morning of Feb. 29. One was Franz Gabriel, a pilot and aide to Aristide; the other was an American security guard.
"I was at the house at 5 a.m. when Moreno came in to tell the president they were going to organize a press conference and be ready to accompany them," said Gabriel, who accompanied Aristide and his wife to Africa and to Jamaica. "We boarded to go to the embassy and we ended up at the airport. That's what Mr. Moreno wanted him to do."
The American security guard, speaking on condition he not be identified, described the U.S. security warning as a subterfuge to lure Aristide away. "That was just bogus. It's a story they fabricated," he said.
Some members of Congress, including Waters, have called for an investigation of the U.S. role in Aristide's ouster. Waters, interviewed during the flight to pick up Aristide, rejected Bush administration assertions that Aristide, a former slum priest, had caused recent strife in Haiti through questionable elections and a turn away from democracy.
"I worked with some of my friends trying to help the United States avoid this confrontation that took place in Haiti," she said. "You know the devastating understanding that my own government was involved in helping to foster the confrontation that eventually led to the coup d'etat has been quite overwhelming."
Aristide said that despite a freeze on funding from the United States and the European Community, which together blocked delivery of a $500 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, he was able to promote social and educational projects.
He said he was particularly proud of a new medical school, the University of Tabare, which had 247 students. "The Marines are now using it as their base," Aristide said, charging that doctors who teach at the school had been intimidated into halting their classes. "The fact that it was created in the middle of an embargo shows our commitment to social funding," he said.
Aristide also charged that U.S. officials were fostering the resurgence of former death squad and army members. He said that the leaders of the insurgency had been wrongly portrayed as part of a democratic opposition, describing them as killers and drug dealers, and he charged that U.S. officials were supporting insurgent leaders Guy Philippe, a former army officer, and Jean-Francois Chamblain, a former leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which operated as a death squad during the early 1990s. "They will kill those who support democracy," Aristide said.
Aristide said he has heard reports that members of his Lavalas party are in hiding, following killings of its members. Others, he said, are being forced into exile. "Some others are braving the killers to demonstrate," he said, adding that he had watched peaceful demonstrations in which Haitians walked up to television cameras and held up five fingers in a sign of support for Aristide, meaning that they want him to serve out his five-year term. "You have to be courageous to do that," Aristide said.
Aristide's opponents have blamed members of the ousted president's party for instigating the violence that has engulfed Haiti over the past two months.
Aristide came to prominence in the slums around Port-au-Prince in the 1980s, when as a priest he opposed the family dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who controlled Haiti for 29 years with U.S. backing. Aristide charged that the new interim government would resurrect a strong, repressive military and prop up a light-skinned wealthy minority. "It is in essence, racist," Aristide asserted.
The vast majority of Haiti's population of 8 million are poor blacks, and Aristide said he thinks he still has strong support among them.
He said one of his ministers told him recently about a woman who was asked by a reporter which party she supported.
"She answered, 'I support Aristide. It is because of Aristide that you talk to me this way,' " with respect of her dignity, Aristide recounted. "I don't know her name, but the woman knows that I care. Despite the misery, she knows that I cannot feel good when she feels bad," Aristide said. Haitians "will always know I cannot forget their suffering. I will not lie to them."