Plunging Into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Democracy

Winner of the Douglas Dillon Prize for Distinguished Writing on American Diplomacy

An inside account of the backroom negotiations that entangled the United States in the sufferings of its island neighbor.

"Plunging Into Haiti is a fascinating and important contribution to our understanding of U.S. efforts to resolve Haiti's 1991-1994 coup crisis and the Aristide presidency in office and in exile. Based on his unique access to sources and a playwright's sense of language, character and drama, Pezzullo presents a Potemkin Village of posturing self-righteousness and counterproductive, sometimes inexplicable decisions and actions by all sides. He shows the context of petty Haitian elite struggles over minuscule state wealth and U.S. power struggles largely impelled by the desire to prevent refugees from reaching the United States."  

- Henry (Chip) Carey, Professor of political science, Georgia State University

"Highly ambitious and especially valuable, not only as a diplomatic case study drawing on a number of important primary sources, but also as a major contribution to the resources on Haiti itself."  

 - Timothy Carney, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, 1998-1999

"Plunging Into Haiti is a must-read for all who would know how foreign policy is actually made, day by day and by fallible and vulnerable people, rather than as the abstract process usually depicted."   

- James Morrell, Executive Director of the Haiti Democracy Project

For much of the early 1990s, Haiti held the world's attention. A fiery populist priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was elected president and deposed a year later in a military coup. Soon thousands of desperately poor Haitians started to arrive in makeshift boats on the shores of Florida. In early 1993, the newly elected Clinton administration pledged to make the restoration of President Aristide one of the cornerstones of its foreign policy. But that fall the U.S. let supporters of Haiti's ruling military junta intimidate America into ordering the USS Harlan County and its cargo of UN peacekeeping troops to scotch plans and return to port. Less than a year later, for the first time in U.S. history, a deposed president of another country prevailed on the United States to use its military might to return him to office.

These extraordinary events provide the backdrop for Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy--Ralph Pezzullo's detailed account of the international diplomatic effort to resolve the political crisis. Through his father, Lawrence Pezzullo, who served as the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, Ralph Pezzullo gained access to important players on all sides. He tells the story of talented, committed men and women from the United States, France, Argentina, and Haiti who dedicated themselves to creating an outcome that would benefit Haiti and the rest of the world. With the energy of a political thriller, Plunging into Haiti fleshes out the central political struggle with threads of Haitian history and will engage readers with a general interest in Haiti as well as students of foreign policy. Using his unique perspective and access, Ralph Pezzullo covers the aftermath of the Clinton administration's diplomatic maneuvers to show an island still in turmoil.

Chapter One

"I can't believe I left Little Rock for this bullshit." —

Vincent Foster in his suicide note

It was a Saturday in March of 1993. March 13, 1993 to be exact, and the snow outside was falling in a steady hiss. A solidly built gray-haired man in a cream-gold Acura cursed his bad luck. He could barely see five feet in front of him as he skidded from one side of I-95 to the other. Time seemed to be suspended in the magical white world beyond his windshield. He thanked God there was no one else on the road.

But Lawrence Pezzullo had to get to Washington. After all, the sixty-seven-year-old career diplomat was on his way to his first meeting with President Clinton at the White House. It was a moment he had been waiting for; a culmination of his 40-year involvement in international affairs.

Only two weeks earlier Pezzullo had been called by Peter Tarnoff at his office at Catholic Relief Services headquarters in downtown Baltimore. He had known Peter in the Carter administration when Tarnoff was head of the State Department Secretariat and Pezzullo was serving as Ambassador to Uruguay and, then, to Nicaragua. Since then Peter had directed the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, located on Park Avenue in New York City. Now Tarnoff was the Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

“Larry, we would like you help us on the Haiti issue," Tarnoff said. "I'm sure you've been following it in the newspapers.i Pezzullo knew from news reports that a Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been elected President of Haiti in December 1990 by 67% of the voters. A military coup had deposed him nine months later after charges that he had violated the constitution and incited mobs to "necklace" his opponents. Since then international efforts to restore Father Aristide to power had failed.

"Peter, I'm flattered," Pezzullo answered. "But I'm running Catholic Relief Services and I can't just bug out." Actually, Pezzullo had been the head of Catholic Relief Service for ten years and was intrigued by the offer to get back into the foreign policy work he loved.

Two days later Tony Lake called. A fair-haired, preppy-looking man with an affable manner, Lake and Pezzullo went back to the early '60s when they were both junior foreign service officers and played together on a championship softball team. They had also served together in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the days of Madame Nhu and the Tonkin Gulf Incident. But fortunes turn. In the early days Pezzullo had played shortstop, while Tony was a late-inning sub. Now Lake was President Clinton's new National Security Advisor. Depending on one's perspective he was either the most influential man in the making of U.S. foreign policy, or the second most important after Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

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Larry, we have a high regard for you and your performance in Nicaragua in dealing with Somoza, Lake said.

Pezzullo didn't need much convincing. After nearly ten years of the Machiavellian machinations of the Catholic Church as it dealt with poverty and development, he was ready to move on. The next day he was at the State Department being briefed on Haiti.

At this first briefing, Peter Tarnoff introduced him to Bernie Aronson, the departing Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs, and the man who had been nominated to replace him, Alexander Watson. In the more-muddled-than-usual transition from one administration to another, neither Tarnoff nor Watson had been confirmed by Congress. Tarnoff instructed Pezzullo to get organized and put together a staff. His official title would be Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on Haiti.

Bernie Aronson, an intensely focused man who spoke and wrote with great precision, had been overseeing the day-to-day situation in Haiti since President Aristide was ousted in a military coup d'état on September 2, 1991. "I've dealt with the Haitian military and General Raul Cédras," Aronson told Pezzullo, "and they're experts at rope-a-dope. That's exactly what they'll do. Procrastinate, procrastinate and procrastinate some more."i He characterized deposed President Aristide as a narrow, rigid man, who though friendly in person was difficult to deal with. Bernie described two agreements negotiated and signed by President Aristide between his overthrow and then — one in Washington and one in Cartegena, Colombia — in which Aristide had agreed to things that he later backed away from. "It seems to be a pattern," Aronson concluded.ii

He also seemed to have doubts that a multi-national approach— either through the United Nations or Organization of American States— would resolve the crisis. Nevertheless, he was gracious enough to arrange a lunch between Pezzullo Dante Caputo, the former Foreign Minister of Argentina who had been appointed the new United Nations/Organization of American States Special Envoy to Haiti in December.

While Aronson was talking, a call came from Richard Feinberg inviting Pezzullo to the White House for a major meeting on the Haiti crisis the next day. Feinberg, whom Pezzullo knew from the Carter administration, was now heading the Latin American office of the National Security Council. Feinberg informed Pezzullo that he was preparing a NSC policy paper, which Aronsom characterized as a “mish-mash.”iii He went on to describe Feinberg's draft as a long, disjointed prescription of what the Clinton administration should do that ended up raising more questions than it resolved.

Back in Baltimore that night, as Pezzullo sat down to a plate of his wife's penne with vodka sauce, the snow began to fall. It was falling sideways when he got up early Saturday morning. He called the White House immediately.

"The meeting is on for twelve noon," he was informed.

Pezzullo swallowed hard. Nothing was moving outside. Not a man to be deterred by a mere blizzard, he started calling taxi and rental companies in search of a four-wheel drive vehicle.

"You've gotta be nuts," was a typical reply. Most taxi companies weren't even running. His wife was busy chewing her lip.

"You're not going, are you?" she asked.

In no time, he was digging out his car. Minutes later he was sliding from one side of I-95 to the other. Little did he know that his skidding car would become a fitting metaphor for the Haitian policy of the Clinton administration.

His career in the State Department had conditioned him to expect a new challenge every two or three years. He had gone from visa and protection work on the Mexican border, to two years at the operations center of the State Department during the Berlin blockade and Cuban Missile Crisis. Then followed an assignment in Saigon, Vietnam ('62-'64) during which he and his family witnessed the fall of the Diem regime, numerous terrorist attacks by the Viet Cong, and the escalating involvement of U.S. troops.

He was not one to sit back and take it easy. After the emotional strain of Saigon he opted for the physical hardships of La Paz, Bolivia ('65-67). The week after the Pezzullo family arrived and were adjusting to the physical discomfort of living at over 12,000 feet, they watched government airplanes bomb and strafe striking miners, who had arrived in the city with sticks of dynamite to overthrow the government. The thuds of percussion bombs were becoming a normal backdrop to life overseas. By the time Pezzullo moved to his next assignment, the infamous Che Guevara was trying to build a guerrilla base among skeptical Bolivian campesinos.

From Bolivia he was transferred to Bogota, Colombia ('67-'69). This was before it became the cocaine capital of the world. After Colombia came Guatemala ('69-'71), another country trying to build a legitimate, democratic government. But faced with a threat from leftist rebels, rightists in the Guatemalan military were turning increasingly to the faceless "killer squads" to eliminate their enemies. The United States was forced to chose between putting pressure on the government to clean up its act, and aiding them in fighting the avowed menace of communism. To Pezzullo's way of thinking, it too often chose the need to stop the spread of communism whatever the price.

Halfway through that assignment U.S. Labor Attaché, Sean Holly, was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas and held for three days. Holly narrowly escaped with his life. After Guatemala, came a six-year stay in Washington that began with a year at the National War College. Two years followed in Central American Affairs. Just as he was starting to think that his career was going nowhere, he was asked to join Ambassador Bob McCloskey in renegotiating U.S. air and naval base agreements with Spain and Portuguese. Stimulated by the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of 7th floor State Department policy-making, he following McCloskey into congressional affairs as a Deputy Assistant Secretary.

In 1977, he was sent overseas again, this time as Ambassador to Uruguay. As our country's chief representative to a repressive military government it was his job to find a way to implement President Carter's newly articulated human rights policy. Skeptics of the Kissinger real-politik school of diplomacy scoffed. But within a year and a half the U.S. Embassy was able to secure the release of many political prisoners and see the beginning of political reform. When Uruguay's first democratically-elected president in twenty years, Mario Sanguinetti, appeared at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York some years later, he was asked how politicians in his country were able to convince the military to accept civilian rule. Pointing to Pezzullo seated in the audience, the Uruguayan President said: "Talk to that man, there."iv

In the Spring of '79, Pezzullo was asked by his superiors to jump from Uruguay into war-torn Nicaragua. He landed there on June 26th, in the midst of a civil war. The last scion of the Somoza dynasty was holed up in his bunker and it was Pezzullo’s job to tell him that the United States was not going to bail him out. This is not what the dictator wanted to hear. Or, as Anastasio Somoza put it in his colloquial English: "Let's not bullshit ourselves, Mr. Ambassador. You have your dirty work to do and I have mine."v Three weeks after Somoza resigned and fled the country, Pezzullo returned as the first U.S. ambassador to the victorious Sandinista regime.

When the Reagan administration came into office with a radically different agenda for Central America from the patient political and economic pressure that the Carter administration had been using, Pezzullo figured it was time to retire. In 1983 he was hired to head Catholic Relief Services. In ten years he had helped it grow into one of the preeminent relief organizations in the world with over 300 programs in 76 countries.

So there he was: 67 years old, raised in the Bronx, the seventh son of Italian immigrants. He had reason to think he was prepared for the next challenge to come his way. But no one who conforms to our Western way of doing things— based primarily on reason and logic—can be prepared for the Hieronoymus Bosch world of Haiti.

But on that snowy Saturday in March, Pezzullo was optimistic. Even as his car slid around the beltway and skidded off at Connecticut Avenue, he had reason to be hopeful. The last years of Republican rule in Washington had been difficult for a man of his intelligence and experience to sit through. What with the Reagan nonsense of Nicaragua being eight hundred miles away from Harlingen, Texas, and United States funding contras to invade Nicaragua, and supporting an all-out war in El Salvador. It seemed to him that now was an opportunity for a thoughtful, rational approach to foreign policy.

Pezzullo parked across the street from the west rear gate of the White House. Norman Rockwell would have wept. Fir and holly trees had been swept with snow; smoke rose from the many chimneys. Huddled in the west wing foyer were Bernie Aronson and Richard Feinberg. The three of them waited for another presidential meeting to end before they were summoned into the Roosevelt Room.

In FDR's day, this room across from the oval office was used as a waiting area for presidential visitors. So many callers spent so many hours staring at mounted fish, that it had been dubbed "the morgue." In the spirit of bipartisanship, President Nixon had the room decorated with mementos to both Roosevelts. A dramatic equestrian portrait of Teddy Roosevelt hangs on one wall and a wise-looking head of FDR looks on from another.

President Clinton was seated halfway down the grand mahogany table in a brown sweater, nursing a mug of coffee. His face was creased into a scowl. Vice President Gore, also a big man, sat across from him in blue jeans and a blue sweater. Sitting next to the President was Tony Lake. Lake's anxious deputy, Sandy Berger, was at the head of the table.

Lake walked over and extended a hand to his former shortstop. "Larry, it's good to see you. Thanks for doing this."vi

Warren Christopher followed Lake in an expensively tailored sports jacket with a silk handkerchief. "Larry, it's good to see you again." It's the first time the Secretary of State had spoken to him since he'd taken on the assignment. In fact, the last words they exchanged dated back to the summer of '79 when Pezzullo was calling from Nicaragua trying to convince his superiors at the State Department to recall him after Somoza had pulled a fast one on the United States. "What is wrong with you people?"vii Pezzullo had screamed into the phone. He didn't know that then Deputy Secretary of State Christopher was listening in on the other end.

Pezzullo sat next to Sandy Berger. Berger had been a friend of the Clinton's since 1972 when they worked together to organize a rally at the Alamo for George McGovern's presidential campaign. Feinberg and Bernie Aronson took their places next to Christopher. Pezzullo noticed that he was the only one at the table in a shirt and tie.

The President was in a bad mood. "Let's get on with this," he said, gruffly.viii

The burly, rumpled Berger started in a burst of nervous energy: “Mr. President, I'll give a recap, then I'm going to ask Bernie Aronson to give you a sense of what's going on in Haiti. Then Feinberg will talk about your meeting with Aristide on Tuesday.”ix

Berger tried to weave together bits and pieces of everything — recent history, past history, personalities, goals— but it all came apart, setting a tone of disarray and confusion. President Clinton sipped his coffee and looked on sullenly. At some point George Stephanopoulos slipped in, sat behind them, and started scribbled notes on a legal pad.

Next came Aronson who spoke with great precision about conditions in Haiti. Gradually the issue started to come into some kind of focus. At one point the President broke in and said something to the effect: This is our hemisphere, and this is something we should be able to do.x

"What, exactly?" Pezzullo wondered as Richard Feinberg took the floor. Feinberg's amateurish presentation quickly wrecked the cohesive framework that Aronson had started to put together. As Feinberg spoke, Pezzullo wondered why someone with his background— an academic economist who had focused on developmental issues in the Third World— was now in charge of the Western Hemisphere office of the NSC. Feinberg ended by reading a quote from Aristide's autobiography: "You cannot eat okra with only one finger."

President Clinton pounded the table. He was clearly annoyed. According to Pezzullo, he said: “You've given me nothing here that I haven't heard already during the transition. We don't have a policy here. This is not the kind of work I want to see."xi

Christopher, who had said nothing up to this point, was shaken by the President's displeasure. He assured the President that he would oversee the development of a coherent policy.

Then Tony Lake spoke: Mr. President, I want you to meet Larry Pezzullo, whom we've brought in to help us with Haiti. He's the one who got Somoza to leave Nicaragua. I remember some of Larry's reporting, particularly the way he talked to Somoza. I think he's the kind of man who can deal with the Haitian military.

The President turned to Pezzullo without saying anything. He looked at him as if to say: "Who is this guy?"xii

Clearing his throat, the veteran diplomat spoke briefly: "I just came into this, but I think we have to make it very clear to the Haitian military what we intend to do. We have to be resolute and disciplined. I think the argument we've got to make is similar to the one I made to Somoza, namely: Change is inevitable and you should play a historic role that speaks to the greater good of your country."xiii He said he would be traveling to Haiti to meet them right after the meeting with Aristide.

Thank you for joining us, said President Clinton.xiv

The President and Vice President were running late. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was waiting. Pezzullo, trying to process his impressions of the new administration, followed the others minus George Stephanopoulos through the narrow West Wing hallways to Tony Lake's office. It was generous by White House standards, but would never do for even a junior vice president in an investment house. Reflecting his recent past as a professor of foreign affairs at Mount Holyoke College, Lake's office was lined with books. The wall opposite his desk was dominated by a painting of a large cow lolling on a field of grass. Lake pointed out proudly that it was on loan from the National Gallery.

From a chair beside his desk, Tony Lake opened the meeting. According to Pezzullo, he said: We have to get the briefing material together for the President's meeting with President Aristide on Tuesday and we need to put Feinberg's paper to bed so that we have something outlining our basic policy. Secretary Christopher sat next to Pezzullo and never uttered a word.

Lake was thinking out loud. He said something like: Given Aristide's difficult personality at some point in time we might have to walk away from him.

Pezzullo was astonished that no one objected. So he broke in: "Tony, if you walk away from Aristide, you lose your moral position."xv

Lake told Pezzullo that he wasn't saying they should do it, but that should be an option.

Then Lake thought out loud some more. As the others listened silently, Pezzullo remembers wondering what the meeting was supposed to accomplish. Then he heard Lake say that at some point they might have to consider using military force. Again, no one said anything.

"Military force?" Pezzullo broke in. "That's ridiculous, Tony. The use of U.S. military force in a country like Haiti with its political history would be a prescription for disaster."xvi

Lake was defensive. He told Pezzullo, he wasn’t suggesting it, he just raising it as a contingency.

What followed according to Aronson was a completely disjointed discussion, with people adding fragments of thoughts and ideas that were practically non sequiturs. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said nothing.

After thirty-five or forty minutes Tony Lake turned to Aronson and asked him to "take out the gems" from the discussion and incorporate them into a policy paper.

Bernie Aronson asked incredulously: "What gems? This has been a completely disjointed conversation. What do you want me to say?"xvii

Lake told Aronson to write a summary highlighting the areas of consensus.

"I don't know what to write," responded Aronson.

After the meeting ended, Pezzullo joined Aronson in the lobby just as Richard Feinberg suggested something to put in the memo. Aronson, who had been steaming for the last twenty minutes, exploded.

"You people are setting up the President," he said to Feinberg, "You're giving him the impression that this can be done easily and that's not true. That's not going to happen in Haiti. I'm telling you you're not serving the President. I hope you understand that."xviii

As Pezzullo drove away, Aronson's words resonated in his mind. He understood the temptation to want to please the president, to make him look like an international hero. Having spent most of his professional career in Latin America, Pezzullo also knew something about the wildly complicated love-hate relationship that those countries have with the United States. And Haiti was even more complex because of the issue of race.

As he left the White House that Saturday, Pezzullo realized that no one had mentioned the refugee crisis, which had put Haiti on the political front burner. He knew that President Clinton and his advisors wanted to avoid a repeat of the period of late 1991 through early 1992 when over 35,000 Haitians had fled in boats to the shores of Florida.

On May 24, 1992, in an attempt to stem the tide of refugees, President George Bush had signed an executive order requiring all interdicted Haitians to be returned to Haiti without being given the chance to apply for political asylum. It smacked of discrimination since people escaping Cuban were readily admitted as political refugees.

Then Democratic candidate Bill Clinton had criticized President Bush for playing "racial politics" with Haitian refugees. "I wouldn't be shipping those people back," he said during the heat of the presidential campaign.

But in a January 14, 1993 radio address as thousands of Haitians prepared to flee by boat to Florida, President-elect Bill Clinton reversed himself. He justified continuing the Bush administration's policy on the grounds that it would save lives. "Many hundreds of Haitians, including women and children, have already lost their lives in dangerous sea voyages," he said. "For this reason, the practice of returning those who flee Haiti by boat will continue for the time being after I become President. Progress toward a political settlement will improve the human rights situation for all Haitians and create a brighter future for your country. That is why, as we work to restore democracy in Haiti, I urge all Haitians not to leave by boat."xix

Newspaper columnists and members of the Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, who had been taunting the President for not living up to his campaign promises on Haiti, applauded the news of Pezzullo's appointment. "The administration has finally engaged the issue," said columnist Earl Caldwell in the Daily News.xx One of the first calls to Pezzullo's new office came from Congressman Charles Rangel who represented Harlem. He complained that the State Department, rather than getting tough with the Haitian generals, had been "playing footsie."xxi Pezzullo told him in no uncertain terms, "that's over." Rangel and he discovered that they had both graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

On Monday, after a weekend spent digesting all he could about Haiti, Pezzullo met President Aristide's U.S. ambassador, Jean Casimir. Casimir traveled to the State Department accompanied by a charming Haitian-American lawyer named Mildred Trouillot ( who later became President Aristide’s wife). A big bear of a man, Casimir had been described to Special Envoy Pezzullo as a professor who had spent most of his professional life outside of Haiti. Divorced and living with his 90-year-old mother, he could, as one Haitian out it, "dedicate himself 24 hours a day to the logic of power."xxii He was also a newcomer to President Aristide's Lavalas movement.

But Ambassador Casimir was not an equivocator, as Pezzullo found out. They had barely finished shaking hands when Casimir launched into a lengthy diatribe against the Bush administration and the United States. Pezzullo had heard that since the fall of the Duvaliers, Haitian leftist intellectuals and political activists had referred to U.S. policy as the "American plan." According to their paranoid logic, the intention of the United States was to prevent Haiti's political and economic development and, thereby, preserve Haiti as a source of cheap labor.

Casimir was from this camp. In 1992, he wrote: "The international elite to satisfy its own vested interests, has to solve an embarrassing equation: the distinctiveness of the Haitian people, the pertinence of their project of society in light of a new international order, and inadequacy of the international power structure to accommodate this pertinent project."xxiii A political ally of Aristide later characterized Casimir as an anti-American leftist, who believed that the CIA, the U.S. military and American imperialism were to blame for all the problems in Haiti. "He's suspicious of all white men," said another Haitian. "The white man to him is the monster who make promises and never keeps them."xxiv Needless to say, Casimir did not leave Pezzullo and other U.S. officials feeling warm and fuzzy.

It wasn't an auspicious introduction to President Aristide himself, who was next on Pezzullo's list of calls. On the way to Georgetown the Special Advisor sat wondering what kind of man would chose a Jean Casimir to represent him. "Does he believe those things himself?" he asked Bernie Aronson.xxv

Pezzullo already knew that Aristide was a highly controversial figure. His supporters in Haiti and the United States regularly referred to him as a prophet, while his detractors called him "the Devil." The former spoke reverently about his commitment to the poor as a parish priest in Port-au-Prince and his continued outspoken opposition to Duvalierist thugs in spite of having barely escaped at least three attempts on his life. They saw a beatific visionary who speaks eight languages, writes poetry, composes songs on his guitar and fights uncompromisingly for truth and justice. But his political opponents considered him an unbalanced demagogue with messianic visions. They cited the fact that he had repeatedly incited mobs to "necklace" his political opponents with burning tires and had brazenly violated the very constitution that he had sworn to defend.


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