Aristide: 'Marines forced me to leave'

Andrew Buncombe,Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 02 March 2004 01:00 GMT

In the end, Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Haiti the same way he came in 10 years ago: at the pleasure of the United States, under escort from the Marines, with the streets of Port-au-Prince at the mercy of former army officers and paramilitary death squad commanders.

How the former priest and champion of Haiti's starving population was pried from office remained the subject of passionate conjecture and bitter accusations as some of Mr Aristide's most influential friends in the US accused the Bush administration of deposing him and taking him to the Central African Republic under conditions tantamount to kidnap.

In a phone call from Bangui, the Central African Republic's capital, Mr Aristide told Maxine Waters, the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, that he had not resigned. "He told me: 'I was kidnapped by US Marines and forced to leave Haiti. I did not resign'," Ms Waters said. "It's like he's in jail."

Similar accounts were given by Ms Waters' fellow Democratic congressman and Aristide champion, Charles Rangel, and by Randall Robinson of the TransAfrica Forum.

The official version given by the Bush administration suggests it was Mr Aristide who decided to leave after asking the Americans to help him weigh his diminishing options.

Washington says that Mr Aristide contacted the US ambassador James Foley on Saturday night after the White House issued a statement blaming him for the crisis.

He asked the ambassador three questions: What did he think would be best for Haiti? Would the United States guarantee his protection? And could he choose his destination for exile?

At 11pm Mr Foley told Mr Aristide that the Bush administration would ensure his safety but that it felt he should go. Washington claims that Mr Aristide decided to leave, writing a letter of resignation and taking up the US offer.

Ms Waters says that Mr Aristide, his wife Mildred and three others were rushed out of Port-au-Prince by a senior US diplomat under heavy Marine escort. Ms Waters said Mr Aristide was told: "You have to go. You have no choice. You must go and if you don't you will be killed and many Haitians will be killed."

That account was corroborated by a report in the French newspaper Libération, which quoted a concierge at Mr Aristide's residence, Joseph Pierre, saying that the Haitian leader was taken away in the early hours of Sunday by US soldiers.

"White Americans came by helicopter to get him. They also took his bodyguards," he said. "It was around two o'clock in the morning. He didn't want to leave. The American soldiers forced him to. Because they were pointing guns at him, he had to follow them. The Americans are second only to God in terms of strength."

The confusion over Mr Aristide's departure has been heightened by growing accusations that the Bush administration participated in a coup d'etat and did not, as the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, participate in a "constitutional" handover of power from a resigning head of state to his temporary replacement, Haiti's chief justice Boniface Alexandre.

"We are just as much a part of this coup d'etat as the rebels, as the looters, or anyone else," said Mr Rangel.

A section of the United States establishment has been antagonistic towards Mr Aristide from the moment he rose to power for the first time in the late 1980s. That antagonism went into abeyance when the Clinton administration restored Mr Aristide to power in 1994 in the wake of a CIA-backed military coup, but has been on the ascendant again ever since.

One of Mr Aristide's most outspoken antagonists, Roger Noriega, is now the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs with direct responsibility for Haiti.

As doubts grew about Mr Aristide's commitment to democracy and human rights, the Americans maintained their former ties to the exiled military commanders who are now leading the armed uprising in Haiti, and developed new ones to opposition politicians.

The bulk of Haiti's foreign aid has been cut off since 2001, ostensibly in response to flaws in the 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections. Since the only dispute was over the extent of the victory enjoyed by Mr Aristide and his Lavalas party, it appears that the electoral flaws were used largely as a pretext to cover other concerns - notably Haiti's growing involvement in the trans-shipment of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

Personal hostility to Mr Aristide was also a likely factor. Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, who has followed political developments in Haiti for many years, said of the most recent events: "This is the predictable outcome of Bush administration policies. Since this administration came in, it has refused to deal with [Aristide]. He always said he was ready to compromise."

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