How Canada tried – and failed – to help Haiti's Aristide return to power

Twenty-two years ago Canada went to bat for the fiery Haitian priest whose campaign of class warfare won him the presidency, until the military took it away. It was an object lesson, Rick MacInnes-Rae writes, in "the limits of diplomacy" that may still apply.

Rick MacInnes-Rae looks back at Canada's first real intervention in Haitian politics, 22 years ago

Supporters of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide demonstrate in Port-au-Prince earlier this year. Aristide has been elected twice, thrown out twice and three times exiled. He was allowed back in the country two years ago. (Marie Arago / Reuters)

Twenty-two years ago this month, Canada went to bat for a fiery Haitian priest whose campaign of class warfare won him the presidency, until the military took it away. 

Despite its age, the anniversary of the coup in Haiti that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 still has the power to draw angry supporters into the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where police have recently been called in to break up pro-Aristide demonstrations.

In October 1991, Canada was quick to provide a plane to ferry then secretary of state for external affairs, Barbara McDougall, and a delegation of Caribbean foreign ministers with a representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) to Haiti to attempt to negotiate Aristide's return to power.

It would turn out to be an object lesson in the "limits of diplomacy," as McDougall recently told me. 

"Who liked Aristide? Nobody," she says. "He was a man of the street. He'd made himself into a bit of a demi-god. He had certainly done some evil things, but he had won the election fair and square."

For that reason, Canada threw in its lot with Aristide.

Championed poor, criticized Duvaliers

A Salesian priest, "Titid" (as he’s known) rose to power championing the poor and a liberation theology his critics viewed as Marxist. His criticism of the ruling Duvalier dictatorships proved so corrosive, the Catholic Church exiled him to Montreal to cool off for three years. It was a pattern he would come to know well. 

Upon returning, his zeal for leftist reform soon alienated him from the movers and shakers of Haitian society, and spooked the U.S. as well. 

Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide waves to supporters outside a court in Port-au-Prince in May. He was appearing in public for the first time since returning from exile more than two years ago. (Marie Arago / Reuters)

So in October of 1991, I found myself standing in the windless white heat outside the Port-au-Prince airport, while inside, the men who'd stolen his presidency gathered to meet Canada's foreign minister and her counterparts. 

That meeting was also producing more heat than light. 

"We weren't offering much," says McDougall. "As far as the international community was concerned, [Aristide] was the leader. And if [the coup organizers] wanted a role in the world — and aid — they would have to restore the legitimate leader to his presidency." 

But the lantern-jawed leader of the military coup didn't see it that way. Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras had been appointed commander-in-chief of the army by Aristide himself. 

Cedras and his cronies cut intimidating figures. 

"They marched into the room in beautifully pressed uniforms, and put Canadian senior staff to shame," McDougall recalls. 

But there was another, surprising side to Cedras, she says.

"At one point during the conversation, he burst into tears. He cried about how he didn't like Aristide. How Aristide had a mesmerizing effect. The Trinidadian foreign minister turned to me and said, 'Oh, these Haitians! They cry all the time. Doesn't matter what you're talking about, they cry.' Cedras was quite an emotional man."

Tricky diplomacy

But that didn't mean he was easy to turn. 

During a break in the proceedings, McDougall stepped out to the observation deck above me, and lit one of the brown- paper More brand cigarettes she was fond of. She exhaled and I caught her eye and gave a thumbs-up, thumbs-down gesture to wordlessly ask if the talks were making progress. Whatever the answer, it would be international news.

McDougall stuck out a thumb, and turned it ... sideways. Ever the diplomat. But in hindsight, it was overly optimistic. 

"We didn't get anywhere," she says now.

Later, with dusk approaching, and the pilots not wishing to leave their plane on the hostile runway overnight, McDougall remembers them yelling at her senior staff to get on board. 

At one point she even joined in, climbing to the top of the air ramp steps in full Mother Hen mode, hollering at us all to get moving. Her words may have been more colourful than that. It was a long time ago. 

The pilot proceeded to push the aircraft into a near-vertical climb so fast, somebody tripped the emergency oxygen masks, and they dropped down like a canopy of snaky nooses.

We were out of Haiti, but Aristide would remain out of power. And Haiti itself wasn't so lucky. Haiti didn't get out. 

In the three years that followed, paramilitaries ruled the night. As many as 3,000 people were killed, according to the U.S. State Department. 

The ruling junta didn't need Western aid. It turned the country into a trans-shipment warehouse for Colombia's Cali drug cartel. 

By 1994, the threat of American invasion broke the military rule. The U.S. escorted a presumably emotional General Cedras to a comfortable retirement in Panama, where he remains to this day. 

And it invited Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to the president's lavish white residence to serve out the last two years of his term, on condition he implement policies favored by the U.S.

He did, but it didn't last long. 

At odds with the U.S.

Within two years, his populist, anti-business, anti-American rhetoric resulted in another coup. He and his allies would blame it on behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the U.S., Canada and France. He subsequently broke with the Americans, and the Catholic Church. 

By 2004, Aristide had been elected twice, thrown out twice and three times exiled. He would spend seven years away this time, mostly in South Africa, until March 2011, when he returned home again. 

But the landscape was much changed. Haiti was still reeling from the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. And the administration of current president Michel Martelly is hostile to Aristide. 

But during a rare public appearance last spring, thousands lined the streets in his honour. 

And his ideas have not gone away. Demands this month that Europe compensate the Caribbean community for slavery have echoes of Aristide’s 10-year-old call for France to pay $21 billion to Haiti for damages inflicted on its former colony.  

But on balance, Aristide keeps a low profile. He no longer seeks the spotlight, complaining to reporters the camera lights hurt his failing eyes. His return hasn't proven to be the grenade his political opponents and the Obama administration had feared. 

If he has a sting, it is in Fanmi Lavalas, the political party he created, which opposes Martelly’s government. But there is no call for the political resurrection of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the strategic planning councils of Washington, Paris or Ottawa the way there was in 1991.

"We did the right thing trying to get Aristide back," says McDougall. 

"But it also shows the limits of diplomacy, in that once someone is in charge of the army, it's very difficult to dislodge them.”

About the Author

Rick MacInnes-Rae

World Affairs

Until his retirement in July 2014, Rick MacInnes-Rae was the World Affairs Correspondent for CBC News. A former Europe Correspondent and host of Dispatches, his 37-year- career with the CBC has taken him across much of the globe.


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