The depiction of the second presidency of Jean-Betrand Aristide
An Open Letter to the New York Times Regarding Haiti
8 JUNE 2022
By journalists who covered Haïti during the 2001 to 2004 era
Submitted to AlterPresse on June 4, 2022
We, the undersigned, read with great interest the recent New York Times project “The Ransom,” which, in the main, examined the odious extortion by the government of France of 112 million francs (about $560 million today) from the newly independent nation of Haiti after forces there defeated the French army and abolished slavery in 1804. This is a very worthy subject for an investigation and, with the extraordinary resources at the disposal of the Times, we were happy to see it given such sustained attention.
Though there has been considerable controversy surrounding the proper crediting of some of the insights and areas of research that the journalists covered, this is not the focus of concern of this note. Rather, as journalists ourselves with many years combined experience working in Haiti who worked there during the 2001 to 2004 era, we were startled by the depiction of the second presidency of Jean-Betrand Aristide contained in the section titled “Demanding Reparations, and Ending Up in Exile,” authored by Constant Méheut, Catherine Porter, Selam Gebrekidan and Matt Apuzzo. It is fair to say that none of us recognized the principled figure the Times journalists - none of whom, it must be noted, were in Haiti at that time - depicted in their article nor the chain of events that led to his ouster in February 2004.
The main argument of the Times piece on Aristide appears to be that his overthrow was the result of a far-reaching plot between the United States and France to prevent him from collecting on the French debt, the owing of which he turned into a rhetorical device when his government was badly faltering in 2003. Certainly, there is evidence that the administration of then-U.S. President George W. Bush, in particular, encouraged some of the most recalcitrant elements of the Haitian opposition at this time,  and successive French governments have a long-documented history of duplicity in Haiti and elsewhere.  In its article, however, the Times journalists quote Thierry Burkard, who served as France’s ambassador to Haiti from August 2003 to December 2005, as saying that the United States “had effectively orchestrated ‘a coup’ against Mr. Aristide’’ [the direct quote has Burkard only saying “a coup,” the characterization beforehand and after comes from the Times journalists themselves] and that Aristide’s overthrow was “probably a bit about” his call for reparations from France. Another former French ambassador to Haiti, Philippe Selz, who served in his role first as chargé d’affaires and then as full ambassador years earlier, from 1992 to 1995 and was serving as ambassador to Djibouti in 2004, is quoted as saying a decision had been made “to extradite the president, to send him away.” These are striking statements, but unfortunately no evidence is presented to support or check these claims, they simply appear to be accepted by the Times at face value and are then used to seemingly support Aristide’s oft-repeated claim that he had been “kidnapped’’ rather than resigned, a claim which the Times then repeats as if the only contradictory narrative exists from U.S. government officials.
By the time of his flight from Haiti in the early morning hours of 29 February 2004, it was well known that Aristide had grown so distrustful of Haitians that he largely entrusted his personal security to the California-based Steele Foundation private security company, whose CEO, Kenneth Kurtz, subsequently said that “we were with the president when he left the country…We took direction directly – and only – from the president…The mission of our company is to protect the head of state from assassination, kidnapping, and embarrassment, and that’s what we did.”  Kurtz’s version of events was supported by National Palace security agent Casimir Chariot, who said that the men who escorted Aristide to the airport “were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces…These were not people who came with handcuffs to handcuff the president. These were men who came to assure the security of the delegation…It was all done very calmly.”  Aristide’s own Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, told Haiti’s Radio Kiskeya in 2010 that Aristide had indeed resigned and that the president’s letter of resignation “was genuine.”  Neptune would also say that he had been “used” by Aristide, and characterized the former president as someone who allowed “no democracy” even within Fanmi Lavalas, the political party Aristide had founded, and that the party was run by “manipulators” disguised as “apostles of change and inclusion of the poor majority.”