Hustling for the Junta: PR Fights Democracy in Haiti

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Hustling for the Junta: PR Fights Democracy in Haiti, an article by PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton, appeared in the 3rd Quarter 1994 issue of PR Watch.

You can find the original version of the article on the Center for Media & Democracy website. It is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

For information about the 2004 ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, see International Politics and Haiti in 2004.

On December 16, 1990, Haiti held the first democratic elections in the country's history. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical Catholic priest, received 67 percent of the vote in a field of 23 candidates, and assumed office on February 7, 1991.

Eight months later, on September 29, soldiers led by Lieutenant-General Raoul Cédras and Colonel Michel François surrounded the presidential palace, seized Aristide and sent him into exile. Bloody repression by the army in the first weeks after the coup killed an estimated 1,500 Haitians. "Boat people" from Haiti began fleeing in large numbers to the United States and other neighboring countries. The United States and the Organization of American States declared a trade embargo against the military regime.

For Cédras and François, the situation was a public relations disaster, but they had planned ahead. The day before the coup, they brought in Lynn Garrison to, in Garrison's words, "lend a hand."

A former Canadian air force officer with shadowy ties to the CIA, Garrison became one of the primary sources for the coup leaders' smear campaign against Aristide. His first task, following Aristide's expulsion from the county, was to go through the exiled president's personal possessions, including diaries, paintings and medicines, seeking evidence to back up the junta's claim that Aristide was unfit to govern.

In Aristide's diaries, Garrison found doodlings of eight-headed monsters, a common voodoo symbol, which Garrison interpreted as evidence of Aristide's mental instability.

Aristide's art collection also included several "Père Lebrun" paintings. Père Lebrun, a major retailer of automobile tires in Haiti, airs television ads in which he pops his head through a tire. His name has become synonymous with a form of killing and torture (known in South Africa as "necklacing") in which a gasoline-soaked tire is placed over the victim's shoulders and ignited. Although art depicting this practice is common in Haiti, Garrison saw the paintings on the walls of Aristide's home as illustrations of a demagogue's enthusiasm for mob violence.

Garrison moved the contents of Aristide's medicine cabinet to a box that he keeps at military headquarters as additional proof for his claims about the exiled president's mental health. But those who have seen them say the medicine bottles appear designed for a man with heart trouble rather than mental problems, and carry no prescription name on the bottles.

Garrison' first task, following Aristide's expulsion from Haiti, was to go through the exiled president's personal possessions, seeking evidence to support a PR campaign claiming that he was unfit to govern.

From these pieces of evidence, Garrison built up a portrait of Aristide as a "psychotic manic depressive with homicidal and necrophiliac tendencies." These charges, coming from an employee of Haiti's Provisional Government who often sleeps on a camp bed at military headquarters as a "security measure," have been amplified and transmitted through the US news media by an array of lobbyists and PR representatives hired by the junta.

The junta's American friends

The strategy of the military regime has been to create enough doubt about Aristide to prevent the US government from taking decisive measures, buying time until international attention turns elsewhere.

The provisional government's strategy has relied heavily on assistance from the Haitian military's allies within the CIA. According to the New York Times (11/1/93), "Key members of the military regime controlling Haiti ... were paid by the Central Intelligence Agency for information from the mid-1980's at least until the 1991 coup that forced Mr. Aristide from power." The Times quoted a government official who, "without naming names," said that "several of the principal players in the present situation were compensated by the US government."

Officially, the US expresses support for Aristide as Haiti's elected president. Behind the scenes, Garrison has worked closely with US Senators Jesse Helms and Robert Dole. His associates include Kevin Kattke, who in 1983 helped Oliver North prepare the US invasion of Grenada; Norman Bailey, chief economist for the National Security Council during the Reagan years; and Henry Womack, who during the 1980s helped oversee construction of bases for contra attacks against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Lobbyists and PR firms engaged by the provisional government of Haiti included George Demougeot, who also represents a US apparel firm with an assembly plant in Haiti, and Stephen A. Horblitt and Walter E. Faunteroy of Creative Associates International, Inc. Another employee in the junta's PR campaign is Darryl Reaves, a one-term Florida state representative who has worked to arrange interviews and Capitol Hill connections for François and Cedras. Like Garrison, Reaves avoids publicity for himself, telling reporters, "I don't exist." When one journalist inquired too deeply, he responded with obscenities and vague threats that he would have the reporter arrested.

The regime's most visible lobbyist, however, has been Robert McCandless. In addition to the military government, McCandless represents a group of businessmen headed by Gregory Brandt, whose interests in Haiti include cooking oil, cars, tomato paste, and coffee.

McCandless signed a $165,000 contract with the junta "to direct favorable PR to Provisional Government and unfavorable PR against former President Aristide. When US and OAS tire of embargo ... try to get aid in money and in kind."

In March of 1992, McCandless accepted $85,000 from the Provisional Government of Haiti as part of a $165,000 contract to carry out a campaign "to direct favorable PR to Provisional Government and unfavorable PR against former President Aristide. When US and OAS tire of embargo and Aristide not returned, try to urge formulation of a new, more humane policy. ... Eventually, after embargo lifting, try to get aid in money and in kind."

McCandless circulated position papers and editorials in Washington, such as an August 13, 1992 memo in which he characterized the US trade embargo as "a policy of genocide against innocent Haitians" that would cause the deaths of "hundreds of thousands of innocent Haitians" unless it was lifted by the start of 1993.

McCandless also rehashed the Haitian military's claim that Aristide was a "tyrant and a cruel and oppressive ruler." He circulated a "compromise plan" to Washington policymakers, proposing to end the crisis by letting Aristide return to Haiti -- not to resume office, but to face trial on charges of embezzlement, inciting mob violence, torture and murder: "Tell the Provisional Government of Haiti that if it will appoint a blue-ribbon citizens' panel and offer Aristide the opportunity to come before them and face his accusers, the embargo shall be lifted. ... The proceeding must be televised and covered by the world press ... The outcome will either restore Aristide to the presidency of Haiti or end in his permanent exile from the country."

In letters to Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post, McCandless argued that this compromise was the only realistic solution, because the provisional government's prime minister, Marc L. Bazin, "will be overthrown himself if he even thinks about recognizing Aristide. ... No caring person backs the Haitian army nor the police. Everyone wants them put under civilian control. But we have to lift the embargo, helping Bazin to get concessions from General Cédras and Colonel François. This is attainable where bringing Aristide back is not."

In the spring of 1992, the Treasury department ordered McCandless to stop representing the Haitian government on grounds that he was breaking the embargo, but he has continued to do so on what he claims is now a "pro bono" basis.

"Make me look good and strong and wise"

In his PR work for the provisional government, McCandless cashed in on his friendship with conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak. On July 2, 1992, he sent Novak a note listing an itinerary of personal problems ranging from divorce to pending bankruptcy, and begging Novak to "find a way to make me look good and strong and wise--none of which I feel."

Novak obliged by visiting Haiti at McCandless' invitation and writing a series of columns in support of the junta. In a 1993 article titled "Why So Hard on Haiti's Military?" he accused the Clinton administration of "uncharacteristic rigidity" for refusing "to consider a negotiated settlement of exiled Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power or even to hear conflicting advice. ... Warnings about Haiti began even before Clinton took office, when Washington lawyer Robert McCandless offered his invaluable contacts with the Haitian military and police to seek a solution. ... McCandless again has offered the president use of his relationship with François and Cédras to seek a peaceful solution. The absence of any response supports the conclusion that the Clinton administration will not accept a murky settlement in Haiti."

The CIA provided a document, later proven to be a forgery, which was used to publicly label Aristide a "psychopath."

The CIA's assessment of Aristide also received extensive media attention when Jesse Helms organized a classified briefing with Brian Latelle, the CIA's intelligence officer for Latin America, on October 20, 1993. The briefing was promptly leaked to the Washington Post, which reported on October 22, "Sources familiar with the assessment said it describes Aristide's 1980 visit to a psychiatric hospital in Canada." Latelle claimed that Aristide has psychological disorders and has used 13 kinds of medication. To back up this story, Latelle presented a document, later proven to be a forgery, which purported to be a letter signed by a fictitious Canadian doctor named Harve Martin.

Helms followed up by delivering a tirade against Aristide on the floor of the Senate, labeling him a "psychopath" and claiming that Aristide had urged his followers to practice "necklacing." As evidence, Helms cited a speech shortly before the coup in which Aristide told a crowd, "Your tool in in your hands. Your instrument is in your hands. Your Constitution is in your hands."

The word "tool," Helms explained, actually meant "burning tire."

Helms cited reports from several human rights organizations to back up his claim that Aristide instigated human rights violations. The speech prompted angry reactions from the human rights groups themselves. In fact, their reports had credited Haiti with significant human rights progress under Aristide. "It is ludicrous to compare that progress with the systematic mass murder committed since by the army," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in New York. Since Aristide's ousting, at least 3,000 Haitians have been killed by the current regime.

Friends Like These

Ironically, the most effective PR work against Aristide may have come from his "friends in high places." Throughout the crisis, the US has sponsored negotiations that have undercut Aristide's position, forcing him to make repeated concessions to the junta. When Aristide has failed to comply, US officials have attacked his "intransigence," portraying his obstinacy as the prima obstacle to peace. The Clinton administration's statements of support for Aristide have in fact been little more than PR aimed at covering up the US refusal to take action that could threaten the military's hold on power.

Gregory Craig, a well-connected Washington attorney, has been a key player in shaping the Clinton policy. A former Yale classmate of the Clintons, Craig was hired in 1992 to represent the interests of Fritz Mevs Sr., a Miami resident who made his fortune with a sugar monopoly under the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Mevs, along with his sons and other family members, have been called the "mini-Mafia" of Haiti. They reportedly shared the military's disdain for Aristide. A report by the National Labor Committee, a labor education group that represents 23 national unions, claims that Mevs was one of the chief organizers of the coup and that the Mevs family made money smuggling cement in violation of the embargo.

Mevs contacted Craig to discover what measures he should take to protect his interests as the Bush administration considered freezing assets of backers of the coup. After determining that the US government had no proof of Mevs family complicity in the coup, Craig agreed to become the family's personal lobbyist in Washington.

Using his Clinton connections, Craig worked closely with Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson and one of his principal deputies, Robert Gelbard, and played a key role in shaping US policy toward Haiti after Bush left office. Craig set up meetings that helped pave the way for the Governor's Islands negotiations in July of 1993, in which the military agreed to let Aristide return as president. In exchange, the coup leaders were to receive legal amnesty and retain their positions in the military.

"American political officials have never liked Aristide," argued James Ridgeway in the Village Voice (10/26/93). "They don't want any part of liberation theology or charismatic religious leaders - especially black charismatic leaders. But the US has been happy to use him to achieve its own political and economic ends, and those of Haiti's business elites. That's why the Governors Islands accords made such sense to the US: they kept both Aristide and the military reined in, in a kind of equilibrium."

Aristide himself never liked the Governors Island plan and had to be pressured by the US into signing. His suspicions proved accurate when the military backed out at the last minute and a Cédras advisor told Time magazine, "the whole thing was a smokescreen. ... We wanted to get the sanctions lifted. That's why we went along. But we never had any intention of really agreeing to Governors Island, as I'm sure everyone can now figure out for themselves. We were playing for time."

The Bush and Clinton administrations vacillated for two years before finally taking action, while the junta's defenders repeated and refined their charge that Aristide was "just as bad or worse" as they were. The Clinton administration finally sent troops into Haiti in September 1994 to impose a settlement that granted a full amnesty to the junta.

After two years in exile, Aristide was allowed to resume office with barely 16 months remaining in his term, under an agreement that forbade him from running for re-election.

The true significance of Aristide's return to Haiti received a frank assessment from Major Louis Kernisan of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who led the retraining of Haiti's "new, reformed" police force. "You're going to end up dealing with the same folks as before, the five families that run the country, the military and the bourgeoisie," Kernisan said. "They're the same folks that are supposed to be the bad guys now, but the bottom line is you know that you're always going to end up dealing with them."

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