U.S. embassy cables reveal how anxious the U.S. was to enlist Brazil to keep the deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of Haiti
by Kim Ives
Confidential U.S. diplomatic cables from 2005 and 2006 released this week by WikiLeaks reveal Washington’s well-known obsession to keep exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of Haiti and Haitian affairs. (On Thursday, Aristide issued a public letter in which he reiterated “my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time” from South Africa for Haiti, because the Haitian people “have never stopped calling for my return” and “for medical reasons”, concerning his eyes.)
In a June 8, 2005, meeting of U.S. Ambassador to Brazil John Danilovich, joined by his political counselor (usually, the local CIA station chief), with then President Lula da Silva’s international affairs adviser Marco Aurelio Garcia, we learn that:
“Ambassador and PolCouns … stressed continued U.S. G[overnment] insistence that all efforts must be made to keep Aristide from returning to Haiti or influencing the political process … [and that Washington was] increasingly concerned about a major deterioration in security, especially in Port au Prince.”
The ambassador and his adviser were also anxious about “reestablishing [the] credibility” of the U.N. Mission to Stabilise Haiti (Minustah), as the U.N. occupation troops are called. The Americans reminded Garcia that then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called “for firm Minustah action and the possibility that the U.S. may be asked to send troops at some point.”
“All efforts must be made to keep Aristide from returning to Haiti or influencing the political process,” the U.S. embassy told Brazil, which heads the U.N. occupation of Haiti.
Careful reading between the lines of the cable shows that Garcia was a bit taken aback by the Americans’ “insistence”; he reassured the duo “that security is a critical component, but must move in tandem with,” among other things, “an inclusive political process.” Garcia also noted that “some elements of Lavalas [Aristide’s political party] are willing to become involved in a constructive dialogue and should be encouraged,” although there was “continued Brazilian resolve to keep Aristide from returning to the country or exerting political influence.”
Aristide “does not fit in with a democratic political future” in Haiti, Garcia is quoted as saying. However, he was “cautious on the issue of introduction of U.S. forces” into Haiti, and “would not be drawn into discussion.”
Aristide “does not fit in with a democratic political future” in Haiti, says another leaked cable from the U.S. embassy to Brazil.
The American duo then met on June 10 with Brazilian Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Antonio de Aguiar Patriota. They told him, and he acknowledged, that “Minustah has not been sufficiently robust.” All this dismay was over the leadership of Brazilian Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, then Minustah’s military commander. Heleno had repeatedly voiced trepidation about causing unnecessary casualties and, more importantly, being hauled before an international court for war crimes. (At the time, there was an independent International Tribunal on Haiti preparing to hold hearings on the crimes committed by U.N. troops, Haitian police and paramilitaries during the 2004 coup and the runup to it.)
Less than a month after these meetings, on July 5, 2005, a browbeaten Heleno would lead Minustah’s first deadly assault on the armed groups resisting the coup and occupation in Cité Soleil. Attacking in the middle of the night with helicopters, tanks and ground troops, the Brazilian-led operation fired tens of thousands of bullets and dropped bombs, killing and wounding many dozens of innocent civilians, including children and infants.
Later that month, Heleno was cycled out of Minustah and replaced by 57-year-old Gen. Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar. Like Heleno, Bacellar was reluctant to use force in Haiti’s shanty towns. But pressure from Washington for “robust” action continued, and in late December 2005, “Bacellar had tense meetings with U.N. and coup regime officials and the rightwing business elite,” reported the Haiti Action Committee at the time:
“They reportedly put ‘intense pressure’ on the general, ‘demanding that he intervene brutally in Cité Soleil,’ according to AHP. This coincided with a pressure campaign by Chamber of Commerce head Reginald Boulos and sweatshop kingpin Andy Apaid, leader of Group 184 [the civic front that took part in the 2004 coup against Aristide]. Last week, Boulos and Apaid made strident calls in the media for a new U.N. crackdown on Cité Soleil.”
On Jan. 6, 2006, Minustah’s then civilian chief, Chilean Juan Gabriel Valdès, said that U.N. troops would “occupy” Cité Soleil, which U.N. troops already surrounded.
“We are going to intervene in the coming days,” Valdès said. “I think there’ll be collateral damage but we have to impose our force; there is no other way.”
But some U.N. officials said that Bacellar “had opposed Valdès’ plan,” according to Reuters. “The general had insisted that his job was to defend the Haitian constitution, but not to fight crime,” the Independent of Jan. 9 reported.
On Jan. 6, 2006, Minustah’s then civilian chief, Chilean Juan Gabriel Valdès, said that U.N. troops would “occupy” Cité Soleil. “I think there’ll be collateral damage but we have to impose our force; there is no other way.” Gen. Bacellar opposed the plan and the next day he was dead.
Then, on Jan. 7, 2006, Gen. Bacellar was found dead in his suite at Pétionville’s deluxe Montana Hotel, a bullet through his head. He had been sitting in a chair on his balcony, apparently reading. Initially, Brazilian army officials called the shooting a “firearm accident.” After a few days, they changed the official verdict to “suicide.”
Four days later, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Patrick Duddy met with Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who “inquired about the circumstances surrounding the death” of Bacellar, another WikiLeaks-released cable reveals. Duddy said that it looked like suicide, but “Fernandez expressed skepticism. He had met Gen. Bacellar; to him, suicide seemed unlikely for a professional of Bacellar’s caliber.”
Fernandez suspected Bacellar had been assassinated by “a small group in Haiti dedicated to … creating chaos; [and] that this group had killed Minustah members in the past (a Canadian and a Jordanian, and now the Brazilian general) … The president said he knew of a case in which a Brazilian Minustah member had killed a sniper.”
When Duddy asked who might be in this group, the only name Fernandez suggested was that of former soldier and police chief Guy Philippe, the Haitian anti-Aristide “rebel” leader in 2004. A former Dominican general, Nobles Espejo, told a March 2004 fact-finding delegation (on which I traveled) that Philippe’s contras had been armed by the U.S. Philippe had staged guerrilla raids and then invaded Haiti from the Dominican Republic under Fernandez’s predecessor, Hipòlito Mejia.
While Fernandez wouldn’t rule out “an accidentally self-inflicted wound,” the cable explains:
“He believes that the Brazilian government is calling the death a suicide in order to protect the mission from domestic criticism. A confirmed assassination would result in calls from the Brazilian populace for withdrawal from Haiti. Success in this mission is vital for President Lula of Brazil, because it is part of his master plan to obtain a permanent seat on the U.N. security council.”
Fernandez’s suspicions – if that’s all they were – seem well-founded. It seems unlikely that a decorated army veteran, parachutist and instructor would be careless enough with a pistol to accidentally shoot himself in the head. Furthermore, Bacellar was a very religious man, with a wife and two children in Brazil. He had just returned to Haiti four days earlier from a Christmas visit home. Even if suicide cannot be ruled out, one would have expected such a man to leave behind a message of some sort.
A confirmed assassination would result in calls from the Brazilian populace for withdrawal from Haiti.
Yet, according to the sources of Brazilian journalist Ana Maria Brambilla, Bacellar “did not display any signs of depression during his last days.” He was accustomed, after “39 years of service, to pressure far worse than he had seen in his four months in Haiti,” his military colleagues told the Independent.
According to the South African newspaper Beeld, “the latest reports in the Dominican media questioned the feasibility of suicide, as no bullet casing was found near the body … He would have been an easy target for a sniper.” Most incongruously, Bacellar’s T-shirt and boxer-clad body was reportedly found with a book on his lap, according to the Dominican daily El Nacional, as he had apparently been reading and relaxing in his underwear on his balcony when the urge to shoot himself came on.
Is it possible some interested party may have wanted to kill Bacellar for his reluctance to crack down on the rebellious shanty town of Cité Soleil? We can only hope that further documents from the WikiLeaks cache will discover the truth.
Kim Ives is an editor with Haïti Liberté newsweekly, the host of a weekly Haiti show on WBAI-FM and a filmmaker who has helped produce several documentaries about Haiti. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in the Guardian of the U.K.