Former Ally's Shift in Stance Left Haiti Leader No Recourse
By Peter Slevin and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
After days of increasingly intense U.S. pressure on him to resign, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ran out of bluster late Saturday. He sent an emissary to U.S. Ambassador James Foley with a series of questions at once urgent and plaintive.
What did Foley think would be best for Haiti? What would the United States do to guarantee Aristide's security? What assurances could the Americans give that his property would be protected? If he fled Haiti under U.S. protection, could he choose his destination?
U.S. officials who described the sequence yesterday said Foley spoke with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had been working the phones in search of a haven for Aristide. Powell instructed Foley to tell Aristide that he would be safe, and that it was time to go.
It was approaching 11 p.m. in Port-au-Prince when Foley telephoned Aristide at the presidential palace and told him the Bush administration considered his position no longer tenable, a senior State Department official said.
Aristide said he was ready. He just needed to pack.
At 6:15 a.m., a U.S. military aircraft carrying Aristide and his American wife, Mildred Trouillot, roared into the humid Caribbean dawn.
The U.S. government returned Aristide triumphantly to power nearly 10 years ago, and did much to manufacture the final push that drove him into exile. In the end, the Bush administration's refusal to send troops to restore order may have been as important as its message to Aristide that Haiti had no future with him in power.
Aristide ended his presidency under siege, with rebel militias vowing to overthrow him and marauding gangs transforming uncertainty into anarchy in the Haitian capital. With domestic support dropping and foreign governments working ever more solidly against him, Aristide had nowhere to turn.
U.S. efforts, combined with the work of allies, winched Aristide from office, but criticism that started before Aristide's departure grew yesterday as Haiti continued its descent into chaos. A central question was whether the Bush administration should have acted sooner and more decisively.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused the Bush administration of sacrificing democracy by refusing to support Aristide. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said Bush should have dispatched troops earlier to stop the violence. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) described Bush as "late, as usual."
Aristide is now gone, following 1991 coup leader Raoul Cedras and dictator-for-life Jean-Claude Duvalier into the ignominy of sudden exile. Yet one week earlier, a different outcome seemed possible, to Aristide and Bush's foreign policy team.
Sixteen days into an increasingly violent insurgency in Haiti's northern provinces, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega set out for Port-au-Prince to forge a power-sharing arrangement that would have allowed Aristide to finish his five-year term in February 2006.
The proposal had been floating around for weeks. Aristide, widely accused of corrupt, autocratic and violent rule, would yield significant authority to an independent prime minister and broadly based cabinet that his Lavalas Party would have a voice in creating. Foreign observers would oversee parliamentary elections and the path to international help would be reopened.
Aristide, in fact, had already agreed, and he did so again on Feb. 21 after meeting with Noriega and a team that included diplomats from France, Canada, the Caribbean and the Organization of American States. It was the next session that scuttled the proposal and signaled the rough week ahead.
From the meeting with Aristide, the diplomats moved into talks with the democratic opposition, which said Aristide could not be trusted, said a diplomat who was present. The opposition had hardly more faith in the assurances of the United States and its partners that Aristide would be held to his promises.
"The opposition folks clearly felt that their grievances of many years had been ignored," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity. "There was a lack of confidence in the willingness of the international community to finally hold Aristide accountable to his commitment."
Noriega left empty-handed. U.S. officials gave the opposition until Monday to answer formally, hoping the leaders would change their minds. Then, to avoid a definitive rejection, they moved the deadline back. But the answer did not change.
Insurgents in the north, meanwhile, had been excluded from the power-sharing project. With unsavory records, a limited political agenda and unclear support, rebel leaders did have men under arms. They said they would force Aristide from office if he refused to quit.
By Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin called for Aristide's resignation. A State Department official said Powell reached the same conclusion. He called on Aristide the next day to "examine his position carefully" and do what was best for Haiti.
The administration did not want to be seen forcing out a democratically elected leader, yet it wanted to take no steps to help him continue his autocratic ways. Bush said the United States would support an international security "presence" if a political solution was reached.
On Friday, aides said, Bush decided the United States would send troops to help police an accord. Along the way, U.S. diplomats had been widely consulting about who could help lead a new government, with or without Aristide.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had been frustrated by his sense of a "go-slow" approach when he and 17 other caucus members met Wednesday with Bush. But in a half-dozen talks with Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the next three days, he detected a change.
"They were thinking, 'If we can just kind of hint, then maybe he will leave on his own and it won't be seen as the United States putting him out,' " Cummings said.
By the time Bush's foreign policy principals -- including Powell, Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney -- held a teleconference Saturday morning, they agreed to press harder for Aristide's departure. They worked out a statement largely blaming him for the crisis. It went out under the White House seal.
Operating under the assumption that Aristide would buckle, Powell made calls in search of governments that would contribute to the peacekeeping force and for countries that might accept Aristide.
It was after dark Saturday in Port-au-Prince when Foley, the chief U.S. liaison to Aristide, got word from an emissary that Aristide might be ready to go.
"He sent word that he wanted to know what Foley thought about what would be best for Haiti," a senior State Department official said. "He also wanted to know what assurances might be available for security for himself and some of his supporters, and the security of their property. And he wanted to have a sense of whether he had any particular country where he had to go."
Foley called Noriega to discuss Aristide's terms and they spoke together with Powell, who was working from his McLean home. When Foley got off the telephone and called Aristide, the official said, "he was very sympathetic with Aristide's plight, but said it was a very untenable situation for him."
Aristide, 50, listened and agreed. He said he needed to discuss it with his wife. When he came back to the phone, the deal was set.
Bush is rarely awakened by his staff, even for an international crisis, but at 1:30 a.m., Rice called Bush from her nearby cabin at the Camp David presidential retreat to let him know Aristide was leaving. Bush called Rumsfeld and authorized a deployment of Marines.
A White House official said Aristide's resignation was a constitutional result with domestic roots.
But Cummings believes Aristide could have survived had U.S. officials intervened to stop the rebels and contain the street violence. "Their actions," he said, "helped drive Aristide out."