Bush administration's role in facilitating the ouster of Haitian President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide came under sharp and sustained attack by Democrats in
Congress Wednesday, while leaders of the of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)
called for an independent investigation into the circumstances that led to
his exile aboard a U.S.-chartered jet Sunday.
In an unusually rancorous hearing of the House Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee, Democrats repeatedly assailed the administration for failing to intervene last week to protect Aristide's government against a rebellion by former military and paramilitary officers notorious for human rights abuses, particularly after Aristide had accepted the terms of a U.S.-backed CARICOM proposal to share power with his opposition.
Sen. Christopher Dodd sharply questioned the administration's position that Aristide's resignation was voluntary. ""It is indisputable based on everything we know," he said, "that the U.S. played a very direct and public role in pressuring him to leave office by making it clear that the united States would do nothing to protect him from the armed thugs who (were) threatening to kill him. His choice was simple: Stay in Haiti with no protection from the international community, including the U.S., and be killed or you can leave the country. That is hardly what I would call a voluntary decision to leave."
Once Aristide accepted the CARICOM proposal, both he and CARICOM called upon the international community to immediately deploy troops to halt the insurgency.
Washington, however, said it would only support sending troops if the opposition – which has repeatedly refused to engage in any negotiation with Aristide since his election in 2000 – also accepted the proposal. When the opposition rejected it, Washington urged Aristide to resign and leave the country.
Only then did it begin deploying troops to Haiti pursuant to a hastily approved resolution of the UN Security Council Sunday afternoon.
Washington's tactics clearly infuriated the CARICOM leaders. "We cannot fail to observe that what was impossible on Thursday could be accomplished in an emergency meeting on Sunday – President Aristide having departed from office," said Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, who had led the mediation effort at Washington's behest. Patterson also noted that Washington failed to involve or consult with CARICOM regarding Aristide's departure.
He warned that Aristide's ouster and the role played by Washington in facilitating it risked creating a "dangerous precedent" for all democratically elected governments in the region, a warning echoed Wednesday by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) stated angrily that people throughout the Americas were "watching this government turn its back on democracy." He told Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega during Wednesday's hearing: "The message is clear: this government will not stand up for a democratically elected head of state they do not like."
For his part, Noriega insisted that Washington had not forced Aristide to leave the country, as the ousted president has since alleged. And he insisted that the U.S. was under no obligation to protect the ousted leader, insisting that "it wasn't a sustainable political solution to merely prop him up."
"We have to make decisions about where we will put American lives at risk," he insisted, adding that, in Washington's view, Aristide "was not a reliable interlocutor."
But in a floor speech Tuesday evening, Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Democrat's ranking expert on Western Hemisphere affairs, charged that U.S. actions may also have violated the three-year-old Inter-American Charter on Democracy, a U.S.-backed document that requires its signatories to come to the aid of any democratically elected government in the region that is threatened with being removed by unconstitutional methods.
"President Aristide, a democratically elected president, made that request and, of course, not only did we not provide assistance," said Dodd, "In fact, we sat back and watched as he left the country, offering assistance for him to depart."
"When governments are challenged by violent thugs, people with records of violent human rights violations, engaged in death squad activity...then I think it is worthy of note that we have walked away from these international documents, signed only three years ago...", he said.
Jamaica's Patterson also questioned the legitimacy of Washington's role, saying that Caribbean leaders, after speaking with Aristide from his temporary exile in the Central African Republic, were not convinced he had resigned "voluntarily." It was on that basis, he said, that CARICOM wanted to see an investigation carried out under the auspices of independent international body, such as the United Nations.
He said the group, of which Haiti is also a member, would protest "in the strongest possible terms anything which would have the effect of removing by unconstitutional means persons who have been duly elected to office."
In his testimony, Noriega stressed that the 2000 elections, in which Aristide officially won some 80 percent of the vote, fell short of international standards, although he admitted that Washington had recognized the former priest as the constitutional president. Backed by Republican lawmakers, he repeatedly insisted that Aristide had governed poorly and had turned "a blind eye to the rampant corruption and drug trafficking of those within his circle of power."
"Aristide had undermined democracy and economic development in Haiti rather than strengthened it," he said.
Noriega also confirmed that U.S. officials had told Aristide they could not guarantee his safety in the event of an assault by the rebels whose leaders had sworn to arrest or kill him. He also confirmed that the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy who had escorted Aristide from his residence to the airport had asked him for a letter of resignation before he boarded the plane Washington had chartered to take him into exile. Noriega insisted that Washington would "probably" have flown him to safety even if he had not provided a letter.
But Charles Rangel, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), suggested that, under the circumstances, Aristide had been essentially coerced into resigning. "I would've signed (a resignation note), too," he told Noriega.
"He was forced out," said Rep. Maxine Waters, another CBC member, who spoke with Aristide before the hearing.
Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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