The New Year is a good time for all kinds of resolutions: resolutions (or firm decisions) to do better next time; the resolution (or settling) of conflicts; and passing resolutions (or expressions of a joint opinion). Although any time of any year is a good time for resolutions promoting stability, prosperity and peace in Haiti, this New Year presents a particularly good opportunity for the U.S. Congress.
Haiti was the Americas’ second independent country- proclaiming its independence on New Year’s Day 1804. But we did not recognize our neighbor for fifty-eight years, because acknowledging the freedom of a country run by former slaves raised too many hard questions about our own commitment to freedom. We were trapped in a conflict between our high-sounding espoused principles- all men are created, endowed by the creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, etc.- and the brutally low reality of enslaving millions of human beings.
Abraham Lincoln took a step towards resolving that conflict on June 5, 1862, when he recognized Haiti during the U.S. Civil War. Three and a half months later, President Lincoln took the next step, resolving to soon emancipate all slaves in areas remaining loyal to the rebel Confederacy. True to his word, on New Year’s Day 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, instantly turning the abolition of slavery into the principal issue of the U.S. Civil War. The surrenders of Confederate Generals in early 1865 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution the following December abolished slavery for good throughout the U.S.
Emancipation was important, not only because it freed over four million Americans from the bondage of slavery, but also because it freed the rest of the U.S. from the hypocrisy of keeping slaves in a country that claimed to be free. Ending the hypocrisy also raised America’s international standing: by the 1860’s, most of the powerful countries in the West recognized slavery as the evil it always was. By resolving to eliminate the evil, we earned respect, and friends. In particular, emancipation forced France and England, whose commercial interests would have benefited from an independent Confederacy, but whose principles opposed slavery, to stay out of the war.
Two hundred years after its independence, Haiti challenged the U.S. to resolve another conflict between our espoused principles- this time our commitment to democracy- and our practices. On February 29, 2004, the country’s 33rd coup d’état forced the constitutional President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of the country on a U.S. plane. He was replaced by a brutal dictatorship, led by a hand-picked Prime Minister flown in from Boca Raton Florida. The regime held on until June 2006, during which thousands of Haitians were killed in political violence, and Haiti’s democratic institutions were gutted.
President Aristide claimed that the Bush administration played a key role in his overthrow, by supporting his armed and unarmed opponents, weakening the government through a development assistance embargo, and eventually forcing him onto the plane. Mr. Aristide’s claim was echoed by members of the U.S. Congress, the 73 countries of the Africa Union and the Caribbean Community, and millions of Mr. Aristide’s supporters in Haiti. The claim is also supported by reports from human rights groups, documents filed in lawsuits and by media investigations, including a New York Times investigation published last February.
If these charges are true, the Bush Administration’s practices conflicted with the fundamental American commitment to democracy, both here and abroad, a principle that President Bush has espoused widely, even justifying the Iraq War as a democracy promotion exercise. These practices would also have violated international law, and contributed to a deadly reign of terror in Haiti.
The Bush Administration has consistently rejected the allegations. Officials contend that the withholding of aid was not an embargo, but a legitimate effort to force the government to correct election irregularities; that U.S. aid to Haiti fought poverty and helped build democracy; and that President Aristide asked the U.S. to fly him out of the country after he had resigned in the face of a rebel takeover of much of Haiti.
The best way to resolve these conflicting accounts of the U.S. role in Haiti’s 2004 coup d’état is an impartial, independent inquiry. If the Bush Administration is correct in its denials, it deserves to have the record set straight. If the Administration did participate in the overthrow of an elected government, that fact should be established. Haitians need to know whether they can trust the U.S. to keep our word and respect our principles. They know from repeated hard experience that coup d’état # 34 is already in the planning stages, which adds urgency to exposing the causes and mechanics of #33.
Establishing the truth about the U.S. role in Haiti’s coup is also important for the U.S. Although the 2004 coup did remove a government that our government disliked in the short term, Haitians eventually got a chance to vote in February 2006, and inevitably elected another progressive by another landslide. The coup’s repression generated a spike in refugee flows that placed unwanted pressure on our immigration and homeland security systems. U.S. troops, already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, were stretched thinner by a three-month deployment in Haiti. The post-coup chaos provided shelter to smugglers bringing cocaine from South American through Haiti to the U.S.
Allegations of U.S. involvement in Haiti’s coup also hurt our international standing, at a time when we need friends in the world. They particularly undermine our credibility when we claim that we are trying to establish democracy in Iraq, criticize other governments as undemocratic, or try to stop the Sudan and other countries from condoning political killings.
The U.S. Congress may be the only chance for a credible investigation of the U.S. role in Haiti’s coup d’état. Although the Africa Union and the Caribbean Community- together almost one-third of the United Nations’ members- called for the UN to conduct an independent inquiry in March 2004, the UN declined to investigate and instead sent troops to Haiti to support the illegal Interim Government. That support, along with the troops’ shootings and illegal arrests of political dissidents makes Haitians distrust the UN’s ability to impartially investigate the coup. Haitian victims of the coup have petitioned the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for help. But that body refused to hear their complaints, without explaining why.
Unlike the UN, Congress has the ability to require Bush Administration officials to appear at hearings, answer questions under oath, and produce relevant documents. Some members of Congress supported the President’s Haiti policies in 2004, while others opposed them, which would help ensure balance in the inquiry.
Congress already has a vehicle ready for such an investigation: the proposed “Responsibility to Uncover the Truth about Haiti Act”, known as the TRUTH Act. The TRUTH Act was originally filed in 2005 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Barbara Lee of California, with 21 co-sponsors. It would appoint a bi-partisan, independent commission charged with investigating the February 2004 coup d’état, and determining whether the U.S. contributed to the overthrow of the Constitutional President, directly or by channeling aid to groups that helped the overthrow.
The TRUTH Act’s commission would resemble the Iraq Study Group that released its report last month. Commission members would be appointed by Congress (half by Republican leaders, half by Democrats), and would be entrusted with reviewing all the evidence, and submitting a final, public report, including findings, conclusions, and recommendations of corrective measures, if needed.
The TRUTH Act was referred to the House International Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, where it languished. But last month, following a visit to Haiti, Rep. Lee promised to reintroduce it. With last week’s convening of a new Congress, with a Democratic majority and an unequivocal mandate to question the Administration’s foreign policy, the TRUTH Act’s time may have come.
By enacting the TRUTH Act, Congress could resolve, once and for all, the outstanding controversies about that the U.S. role in the 2004 overthrow of Haiti’s constitutional government. If the investigation determines that the U.S. did participate in President Aristide’s overthrow, that knowledge would allow Congress to take steps to resolve the conflict between such illegal and harmful practices and our professed policy of promoting democracy and respecting human rights. The knowledge would also inform the most important resolution of all: a commitment by everyone concerned- Haitians and Americans, government officials, candidates and voters- to allocate political power in Haiti with ballots, not bullets, and to promote the stability that Haiti’s peace and prosperity requires.
BRIAN CONCANNON Jr. is a human rights lawyer and directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org