by Sue Montgomery. Originally printed in the Montreal Gazette February 28, 2014
MONTREAL — Ten years after Haiti’s first democratically elected president was removed from his country in the middle of the night and dumped in Africa, Canada’s role — and that of Montreal’s current mayor — has been shrouded in secrecy.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest from Haiti’s slums who is reviled by the elite minority and revered by the poor masses, claims to this day he was blindfolded and forced to sign a letter of resignation before being airlifted out and dropped in the Central African Republic.
The United States, Canada and France all claim he left voluntarily. They say they told Aristide that no one would come to help him — despite the trio’s signed commitment just four years earlier to do so — and that he, his family and supporters would be killed.
“In some ways, the competing stories are a distinction without a difference,” says Brian Concannon, a lawyer with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “It is hard to say that in that situation he had a meaningful choice.”
It was another blow to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — made destitute by two centuries of racism, greed, revenge and a series of inept and corrupt governments backed by the United States. The Caribbean nation, which shares an island with the better-off Dominican Republic, has had 22 constitutions since winning its freedom in 1804 and lived through 32 coups — 33, if one counts the 2004 ouster of Aristide.
Now, Haitians want an apology from Canada, and particularly Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.
In February 2004, Coderre was the federal Liberal minister for the francophonie when he arrived by helicopter at the swanky Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince and declared a rag-tag group of armed rebels that were fast descending on the capital “criminals.”
“I won’t call them rebels, because that means that maybe they have a cause,” Coderre told reporters at the time. “I can understand if the opposition is against the power in place, but our role as an international community is not to ask for Aristide’s head.”
He repeatedly and adamantly insisted to reporters that Aristide was the country’s legitimate president.
Yet eight days later, in the middle of the night on Feb. 29, U.S. soldiers took Aristide from his home, allegedly blindfolded, and flew him out of the country. It’s unclear whether Canada uttered a word of protest.
Since then, the situation has been “hell,” says Haitian human rights lawyer Mario Joseph. Human rights advocates have been killed, women have been raped by United Nations peacekeepers installed after Aristide’s ouster, and a judge who was under pressure to drop a corruption case against the current president died under suspicious circumstances. But perhaps worst of all, in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, the UN introduced cholera to the country, claiming the lives of more than 8,500 to date and infecting hundreds of thousands more.
“Canada has helped make Haitians’ lives very difficult,” Joseph said in an interview this week while on a speaking tour in Canada. “Coderre should apologize because he used Canadian money to cause disorder, chaos and misery.”
But the official line, and the one the Liberal government of Paul Martin held to at the time, was that Aristide resigned — a charge the former president denies to this day. Coderre, as he prepares to go to Haiti next month, his first trip abroad as Montreal’s mayor, says he has nothing to apologize for.
He is a friend of Haiti, he said this week in response to Joseph calling him a liar. He refused to answer questions about his role in 2004.
Back then, when Aristide and his supporters claimed his ouster was a deliberate and planned coup d’état by the United States, France and Canada, Canadian opposition MPs and CARICOM, the body that speaks for Caribbean nations, called for an international inquiry into the incident. No such investigation was ever conducted.
“It is unacceptable to have sent in our army and unacceptable that we permitted the removal of Haiti’s president … thus ending his presidency,” NDP MP Joe Comartin said in the parliamentary debate on Haiti less than two weeks after Aristide was removed. “Are we going to say we have a right to determine what elected officials should be removed and which ones should be allowed to stay? I do not support that.”
Stockwell Day, then Conservative Party of Canada critic for foreign affairs, was categorical.
“This was clearly a regime change,” he said in the debate. “Whether we like to admit it or not, we took part.”
Indeed, a year earlier, information was leaked to l’Actualité that regime change in Haiti had been discussed at a January 2003 summit of the francophonie held in Ottawa by the then secretary of state for Latin America and Africa. Representatives of France, U.S. and the European Union were there, but Haiti wasn’t invited.
Canada, France and the United States had three years before that meeting signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, pledging to support elected leaders in the Americas, yet not one of those countries sent in military or police in 2004 to help Aristide.
In the debate in the House, Coderre said that sending troops to Haiti to stop the rebels would have placed Canada and other countries “on the side of the president.”
But wasn’t that what the Inter-American charter had them promise? It wouldn’t have taken much to head off the rebels — a band of maybe 200 outlaws.
If the leader of the three-week insurrection is to be believed, Canada was on their side.
The planning had begun two years previous in the Dominican Republic, Paul Arcelin, a former professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal and self-described “mastermind” of the plot told The Gazette in 2004 in Haiti.
Arcelin, whose brother is a doctor in Montreal, said he’d met with former Liberal health minister Pierre Pettigrew in Canada as the insurrection was getting underway. Pettigrew’s riding included a large number of Haitians.
“He promised to make a report to the Canadian government about what I had said,” Arcelin told The Gazette in 2004.
That’s when rhetoric about the rebels began to soften, with American and French envoys in Haiti referring to them as simply “armed elements” rather than the earlier, no-nonsense terms terrorists and criminals.
With Aristide safely out of the country, a United Nations stabilization force was quickly installed and has been there ever since. According to Joseph, it has caused nothing but problems, including the deaths of thousands from cholera — a disease that had not been seen in the country before 2010 for 100 years.
In October, Joseph’s law firm, Bureau des avocats internationale, along with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, asked a New York federal court to certify a class-action suit against the United Nations on behalf of the cholera victims. The suit demands that the UN not only compensate the victims, but also install a national water and sanitation system that will control the epidemic and issue a public apology for its wrongful acts.
“Imagine if (cholera) was introduced in Canada, what a story that would be?” Joseph said.
Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said the UN, while immune from any legal prosecution, has an “absolute moral obligation” to respond.
“I think they’re worried about the lawsuit,” he said in an interview this week. “They’re not worried about defeating it, they’re worried about the continuing drum roll of publicity about how the UN has handled it and that they see they’ve got to step in and deal with it before it overwhelms them.”
Effective government is another problem and President Michel Martelly is simply another puppet put in place by the Americans, Joseph said.
Last year, Judge Jean Serge Joseph had been assigned to oversee a high profile corruption investigation against Martelly’s wife, Sophia, and their son, Olivier. Joseph had reported receiving threats to dismiss the corruption case during a meeting with Martelly, the prime minister, and the minister of justice and public security.
Joseph refused, and two days later he died under suspicious circumstances.
This week, five people were arrested for the Feb. 8 fatal shooting of human rights defender Daniel Dorsainvil and his wife, Girldy Lareche. Dorsainvil was the general coordinator of the Platform for Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights, an association of eight Haitian rights groups that have been critical of Martelly’s government. A few weeks before the shooting, the organization had issued a report criticizing the government’s refusal to hold local and parliamentary elections. It also decried the impunity former and current government officials enjoy, including former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who returned to the country in 2011 after 25 years in exile. He took over his father’s iron-fisted rule of the country and was in power from 1971 to 1986.
Haiti’s Court of Appeal recently overturned a lower ruling and said there is “substantial evidence” pointing to the indirect involvement and alleged criminal responsibility for the alleged human rights abuses during his presidency.
Joseph, who represents several of Duvalier’s alleged victims, shrugs when asked whether that’s a good sign.
Martelly supports Duvalier and doesn’t want to see him tried.”