Jimmy Carter’s personal diplomacy in Haiti averts a bloody showdown with the country’s dictators
For about 24 hours after U.S. soldiers in the vanguard of Operation Uphold Democracy jumped out of thrumming Black Hawk helicopters onto the tarmac of Haiti’s main civilian airport early on Sept. 19, political critics in Washington held their fire. Opposition Republicans and doubting Democrats rallied that Monday in the House of Representatives behind a bipartisan resolution that applauded a weekend diplomatic deal allowing the soldiers to land unopposed. But the political truce was brief. The pact turned a U.S. invasion plan into a co-operative exercise with a military junta that President Bill Clinton, only four days earlier, had pledged to dislodge by force if its leaders failed to “leave now.” And on the second day of the operation, televised scenes of Haitian police and soldiers bludgeoning celebrating citizens, as U.S. troops stood by, reinforced impressions that “the most violent regime in our hemisphere,” in Clinton’s words, retained control. The sickening TV images refuelled American doubts about the wisdom of any intervention in the chaotic Caribbean country, especially in league with the declared enemy.
But the architect of that arrangement, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, was undismayed. Under the weekend deal he brokered, Haiti’s military leaders promised to abdicate by Oct. 15. “This opening,” he told a midweek audience in Atlanta, “might lead to real democracy in a Haiti that is
blessed with a partnership with the greatest nation on earth.” Carter’s optimism that the junta leaders will quit, after reneging on an agreement to step down a year ago, reflects his belief that trust and respect may bring out the same qualities in others. That belief has opened him to charges of naïveté, even to ridicule, as it did in some Washington quarters last week. But his unyielding faith in personal and political honesty drives a Carter crusade for human rights, the basis of his foreign policy during his presidency (1977-1981) and of peace and development programs sponsored by the Carter Center in Atlanta since its founding in 1982. And his methods often work. As president, Carter mediated peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979; as a freelance diplomat more recently, he worked to subdue conflict in Somalia and Korea. As he told Maclean’s Associate Editor Joe Chidley in an interview earlier this year: “I just believe that conflict should be the very last resort. I don’t believe that, in many cases, our own country uses its full influence or full power to prevent a war, to end a war, before we insert troops into a troubled region.” Similar arguments convinced Clinton to let Carter give peace and persuasion a last chance in Haiti.
The initiative was a close-run thing, a two-day round of meetings in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, that overran a series of U.S. deadlines and, on Sunday night, sent an armada of airborne invasion forces back to base. By Carter’s later telling, and the accounts of other participants, the meetings were marked by emotion and tensions before the negotiators produced a seven-paragraph agreement accepted by Haitian leaders and, via telephone, by Clinton. By then, Carter later related, “the airplanes had been on their way—61 planes filled with paratroopers—for 75 minutes” out of Polk Air Force Base in North Carolina, roughly halfway to Haiti. “At that point, President Clinton called, and the planes turned around.”
The beginnings of Carter’s involvement date from December, 1990, when he went to Haiti as part of a team monitoring the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. There, he met Raoul Cédras, then an army colonel in charge of election security, now a lieutenant-general who heads the junta that has ruled since an army coup on Sept. 30, 1991, ousted Aristide and sent him into exile in Washington. In recent months, as economic sanctions and
invasion threats failed to cow the Cédras regime, Carter had pressed Clinton unsuccessfully to let him help negotiate a resolution. He renewed the appeal more urgently in a telephone call to Clinton on Sept. 14 after talking to an apparently more conciliatory Cédras by phone. Cédras called Carter by invitation in a process launched by Charles David, a Haitian-born former Montreal resident and foreign-affairs reporter for La Presse, who was appointed Haiti’s foreign minister last May. David had written Carter a letter appealing for his intervention.
Even before receiving Clinton’s response, Carter recruited two associates—fellow Georgian Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate armed service committee, and Colin Powell, former chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, the son of Jamaican immigrants and a military man highly respected by Haitian counterparts. The Carter offer reportedly received a cool reception in the state department. But Clinton, shortly after delivering his televised invasion warning on the night of Sept. 15, gave the goahead to Carter, Nunn and Powell. They flew to Haiti early Saturday and plunged into a campaign to persuade the Haitian leaders that co-operating with a temporary U.S. occupation and leaving office under an amnesty would be wiser for them and the Haitian people than inevitable defeat in combat and their own disgrace and possible death.
Even so, some of the people they met—“proud and patriotic,” in Nunn’s words—seemed to prefer death to surrender. Brig.-Gen. Phillippe Biamby, Haiti’s army chief of staff, at one point spoke of suicide. And at a pivotal Sunday morning meeting in the Cédras home, Cédras’s wife, Yannick, opposed any surrender of sovereignty. Recalled Nunn: “Frankly, I think the family [including three children] had taken the decision the night before to die together.” But Powell, said Nunn, then spoke out eloquently about courage, honor and the duty of military leaders to save their army from destruction. Added Nunn: “It had an effect on Gen. Cédras.” Yannick Cédras, who Carter described as “impressive, powerful and forceful,” reluctantly agreed that negotiations should proceed.
Still, as the formal talks outlasted numerous extensions of the Carter team’s noon deadline, negotiations bogged down over U.S. demands that the junta leaders agree to step down by a specific date. Clinton rejected a draft agreement, faxed to the White House, that set no deadline for the junta’s resignation. The Haitians, in turn, at first spumed a revision, based on a White House rewrite, that required senior military officers to accept “an early and honorable retirement. . . when a general amnesty is voted by the Haitian parliament or Oct 15, whichever is earlier.” Carter, intentionally unaware of the invasion plan’s timetable, came under pressure from Clinton to get out of Haiti. Clinton, who said later he became convinced that no agree ment would be reached, quoted himself telling the former president in the evening: “This is uncomfortable for me. We’ve been friends a long time. I’m going to order you out of there in 30 minutes. You’ve got to get out” It took longer than that.
Tension became palpable when Biamby, who burst into the meeting carrying a portable telephone, announced that he had just learned that the airborne armada was heading for Haiti. “They thought that we had perhaps betrayed them,” said Carter, but the Haitians were persuaded to proceed. Still, Cédras refused to sign the agreement, saying it would be a military offence. With Clinton’s telephoned authority—and a further 30minute extension—the negotiators shouldered their way through a crowd of anti-Aristide demonstrators across the street to the presidential palace to meet with Emile Jonassaint, the 81-yearold former chief justice appointed president last May, and his cabinet.
Jonassaint, portrayed as a Cédras puppet by the outside world but as an authoritative leader by Carter, took charge. According to Carter, Jonassaint pointed a finger in turn at each member of the military staff and his cabinet and declared: “We are going to do this. We will take peace instead of war. I will sign this agreement” Every cabinet member disagreed, said Carter, and the defence minister said he would resign. But Jonassaint took up a pen and signed. Powell turned to Cédras and asked if he would honor the pact According to those present Cédras replied that “we pledge our word that we will carry out whatever our president tells us to do.”
If the former president’s trust in that promise proves warranted, the outcome will reinforce a record that many say deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. As for Carter, he had other things in mind last week. Apparently tireless as he approached his 70th birthday on Oct. 1, Carter flew home to Atlanta after touching down in Washington for separate meetings with envoys of the two Koreas on Monday and Tuesday. Since June, he has been working on efforts to patch decades-old differences between the Communist North and capitalist South. And in his midweek speech to an assembly of students at Emory University, he declared that it is high time that the United States and Cuba resolved more than 30 years of hostility and got serious about human rights. He has already been talking about that, he said, with Fidel Castro.
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