Aristide's last days
Two years ago Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile, shocking his battered country. Haitians are still arguing: Did he jump or was he pushed? Without answers, some say Haiti cannot move forward. Now, a clearer picture has begun to emerge.
By DAVID ADAMS
Published February 28, 2006
On the evening of Feb. 28, 2004, armed rebels were marching on the capital. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, almost defenseless save for his 50-strong security detail, picked up the phone.
It rang at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James Foley. Aristide had decided to call it quits.
"We were completely stunned," said Foley. "We had not the slightest inkling that he would be prepared to leave, on that day."
But two years later, nagging doubts still surround the manner of Aristide's departure from office. Aristide has always insisted publicly he was kidnapped in a coup d'etat backed by the United States.
"He was not persuaded at all," said Foley. "He decided himself to leave. He feared he faced death if he could not get out."
Exiled in South Africa, Aristide is now talking of returning to Haiti after the election earlier this month of his former ally Rene Preval as the country's new president.
Some fear Aristide's return to Haiti could undermine Preval. Despite allegations of drug trafficking and human rights abuses, Aristide remains popular among Haiti's impoverished masses.
In large part this is because of popular resentment over the perceived manner in which he was forced to leave the country.
"The big question is did Aristide jump, or was he pushed?" said Dan Erikson, a Haiti analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. "It would help if there was greater clarity. It's entirely possible that the U.S. played a positive role and didn't get any credit."
* * *
Before the call to Foley, Aristide had been hanging tough. In a TV address earlier on the 28th he vowed departure was "out of the question."
Aristide appealed to foreign governments for "a few soldiers" to protect him from being overthrown. The rebels were a rag-tag bunch of renegade former military officers backed by drug money, he protested. But there was no appetite abroad to save Aristide's discredited regime.
His life was another matter.
Washington feared a bloodbath if the rebels attacked Port-au-Prince. Aristide still had armed followers in the slums who would surely put up a fight. As they came south the several hundred rebels were capturing weapons and ammunition at police stations along the way.
"We feared that in that confrontation the president would be killed," said Foley. A six-man U.S. Army team was dispatched to Haiti, prepared to mount a rescue of Aristide if necessary, he said.
The elite unit was to meet with Aristide's security personnel, including the head of his bodyguards from the California-based Steele Foundation.
Word came back that Aristide was ready to leave immediately, very different from his earlier defiant broadcast.
At 8:30 p.m., Aristide called Foley. It was the beginning of a long night. At first, Aristide wanted to know what the United States considered the best option for ending the violence.
"He spoke very eloquently about his desire for peace," said Foley. "I certainly told him that I was extraordinarily sorry that his term was ending this way and I told him that I thought history would remember him well as someone who made a sacrifice in the interests of the country."
Foley then rang Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Secretary Powell was stunned, and he asked me what was going to be the consequence," he said. Foley replied that Aristide needed to be rescued before the rebels reached the capital.
Foley and Aristide spoke several more times. "The biggest question he had was where he wanted to go. He asked for some time to talk to his wife."
Washington told Foley a plane would soon be on its way to fetch the president. But Aristide would need to sign a formal resignation letter.
Foley worried that time was running out. So, apparently, was Aristide.
"During the night he had told me that he himself was extremely concerned that if his followers, even his entourage, learned that he was about to leave ... they might not let him," Foley said.
In fact, U.S. officials say Aristide told almost no one of his plans. Even members of his Cabinet, including Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, were kept in the dark.
Neptune told the Los Angeles Times he got a call from "somebody close to Aristide" about 11 p.m. telling him to go to a meeting near Aristide's residence in Tabarre. There he found the minister of finance, Gustave Faubert, and a senator, Mirlande Liberis. Aristide phoned again at 1 a.m. and spoke to each of them. When it was Neptune's turn, he said, Aristide told him cryptically, "I am trying to undo something in the making." Neptune was baffled.
At 4 a.m. Aristide called again. "He told me "I am like a prisoner. If you want to leave, leave, or if you want to stay, stay,"' Neptune said.
Neptune was taken aback. "I didn't answer. I was furious because I should not have been told that at the last minute."
Around the same time, the U.S. Embassy's second in command, Luis Moreno, was on the way to Aristide's residence with the Army unit. They had to clear debris and barricades along the largely deserted roads. Their mission was to deliver Aristide safely to the airport.
When they arrived they met no opposition. In the driveway Moreno saw 40 to 50 armed Haitian police and the California security guards. They ushered the diplomat inside.
A witness, palace security agent Casimir Chariot, confirmed Moreno's version.
"They were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces," said Chariot. "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 was waiting with his bags packed. "Mr. President, you know why I am here," Moreno said.
He addressed the president in Spanish, the language they had always spoken since they first met a decade earlier. When the United States invaded Haiti in 1994 to put Aristide back in power, Moreno had been part of the team coordinating his return.
"Have you got something for me? I need that (resignation) letter," Moreno inquired.
"You know, Mr. Moreno, my word is my bond," he said, adding he would get the letter at the airport.
"We have to get going," said Moreno. "It's nasty out there."
The airport was only a short distance away, but Moreno was concerned that the rebels were on the way and pro-Aristide loyalists could return to the streets.
Moments after leaving, Moreno was surprised to see Aristide's palace security escort turn off the airport road, headed instead for downtown. Aristide continued to the airport with the team from the Steele Foundation. Only later did it dawn on Moreno that Aristide had concealed the exit plan from his own guards, sending them to a bogus palace meeting.
They waited on the tarmac for the plane's arrival. Moreno was getting nervous. The sun was coming up. Word came the plane was about to land. Moreno went over to Aristide's car and tapped at the window.
"I really need that letter now," he said.
Aristide didn't say a word, but reached over and took the letter from his wife's purse. Moreno felt compelled to say something.
"I'm very sad to say goodbye in these circumstances," he said.
Aristide answered in English: "Well sometimes, Mr. Moreno, life is like that."
Moments later a large, white unmarked plane touched down. Aristide and his wife hurriedly boarded. The Steele Foundation guards followed them.
At 6:15 a.m. the plane took off, headed for the Central African Republic.
Word of Aristide's departure spread quickly. Confusion reigned and the capital braced for the arrival of the rebels.
Aristide's palace security team showed up in disbelief at a downtown hotel near the palace, according to witnesses. They hid there for several days fearing retaliation.
Moreno was at the palace securing Aristide's personal belongings when he got wind that Aristide was claiming he had been kidnapped. After arriving in Africa, Aristide had phoned Rep. Maxine Waters of California, one of his staunchest U.S. supporters. "The world must know it was a coup. I was kidnapped. ... I did not resign," Waters said Aristide told her.
Moreno was surprised. "I knew what the facts were," he said. In fact, he was feeling very good about the role he had played. "I was disappointed. As a diplomat you train for moments like that. I really feel we saved many, many lives that night."
The rebels arrived in the capital later that morning aboard trucks and pickups and tried to storm the palace. Moreno was there with four other diplomats armed with revolvers to stop them.
* * *
About three days later a phone in the prime minister's office reserved for urgent business rang.
It was Aristide, calling from Africa. He asked to speak to Neptune. "What are you still doing there?" Aristide demanded.
"I'm just doing my job," Neptune answered. Aristide reproached Neptune for legitimizing the "coup." Neptune hung up on him.
He was furious, feeling Aristide had abandoned him to face the chaotic aftermath. Within hours of Aristide's departure the house where Neptune lived was burned down. He would later be jailed, where he remains today.
"I won't answer that phone again," he told an assistant. "Don't pick it up."
Times correspondent Chantal Regnault in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.