Mark Danner interviewed by Richard Hottelet, America and the World, National Public Radio
Interview with Mark Danner
RICHARD C. HOTTELET, Moderator: America and the World. Sherlock Holmes solved one of his cases because a dog did not bark. In the case of Haiti, the political mystery is all the deeper because of the silence about events in that unhappy country after months of melodrama. Just three years ago, things looked rather promising. Haiti held free, democratic elections for the first time ever. The Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president by a two-thirds majority. But less than 8 months after taking office, he was overthrown by a military coup and force in to exile. The story since then has been the effort to restore Aristide to office. It is a story of orchestrated embarrassment and frustration. We want to look at what has and what has not happened with the expert help of an American reporter, Mark Danner of the New Yorker magazine who has written extensively about Haiti.
Mr. Danner, can one pinpoint the cause of this humiliating stalemate?
MARK DANNER, Staff Writer, ‘The New Yorker: In end, the Haitian military, as in the case with many small countries, knows us much better than we know them, and they’ve used that knowledge to devastating effect during the last two years.
HOTTELET: This is one in a series of broadcasts, conversations with American and foreign experts and world leaders, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations in association with station WNYC. I’m Richard C. Hottelet. The two years since resident Aristide was forced out have been bloody inside Haiti as the generals and their so-called army have asserted their power through murder and terror. Outside Haiti, the response has been some wild political shadowboxing, utmost outrage by the OAS, the Organization of American States, by the United Nations and by both American administrations. Economic sanctions were imposed then lifted when the generals promised to be good, and then clamped on again when they broke their promise. They turned nasty against the UN human rights observers and the U.N. pulled them out. When the United States tried to land a small contingent of combat engineers and technical advisers as agreed to train the police and the army, a mob at the port blocked the landing, threatening another Somalia. The ship was turned around. Since then, warships far off shore have enforced the embargo more or less. But the generals still have their thumbs to their noses.
Enough of that. Mark Danner, how much longer can this go on?
Mr. DANNER: I think it can go on for very much longer, I’m sorry to say. The Haitian military seems extremely well-installed. They’ve been able to ride out the embargo. They have a trickle of fuel and other goods coming in from the Dominican Republic. They see on the horizon no strong political threat. The Americans seem unwilling to escalate the embargo in any way. I’m afraid that the situation at present is rather bleak.
HOTTELET: And, of course the clock keeps ticking, the President Aristide’s five-year term expires two years from next February, so it’s already almost an end game. Can the army wait us and everyone out?
Mr. DANNER: Well, it’s true that on February 7th, next February 7th, three years of Father Aristide’s five-year term will have elapsed. He’ll have two years left. Of the three years that have elapsed, he’s served 31 weeks in the palace. He, by law, by the constitution cannot succeed himself. So, we start to get into a situation where even if he is restored, we will already be in the end game of his administration. I think it is possible and I’m sorry to say this, sorry to be so pessimistic, but I think it is possible that the Haitian military can wait us out, can wait out the international community, for nothing that we’ve seen lately suggests otherwise.
HOTTELET: Let me crank back. You said that they understand us better than we understand them. Whom are we dealing with? What is this army? Who is General Raoul Cedras Where did he come from?
Mr. DANNER: Well, General Cedras comes from a fairly well-off family. His father was an associate of Duvalier, both the son Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986-
HOTTELET: Better known as ‘Baby Doc’-
Mr. DANNER: And the father- That’s right.
HOTTELET: Son of ‘Papa Doc’.
Mr. DANNER: Exactly. The father, Francois Duvalier, who ruled from ’57 to- to ’71. So, he is part of a generation- the second generation of Duvaliers. He went into the military academy in the early ’70’s and actually the first class that was produced by the academy after Jean-Claude reopened it. His father had closed it. This is a very important military class. It’s called the ‘Jean-Claude Duvalier Promotion’ and these are the officers who now are key in the Haitian military. Cedras is an interesting man he’s rather studious,s omewhat academic, very soft-spoken, he has never to my knowledge, actually commanded troops, until now that is. He was head of the military academy and had other administrative type positions. But he is not the prototype of the military strongman by any means. That role goes to the Port-au-Prince police chief, whose name is Colonel Joseph Michel Francois.
HOTTELET: The CIA apparently thought highly of Cedras.
Mr. DANNER: Well, so reports say, that doesn’t surprise me, although I can’t independently confirm it, I should underline. But, you know there was something of a- of a eruption of pieces in the press a few weeks ago to the effect that, ‘My gosh the CIA has certain Haitian military officers on their payroll.’ And I may be a bit cynical, but to me this is how the CIA essentially does business in a lot of countries. They spot early on officers who they think are promising and begin paying them. This is how Noreiga got on their payroll. They begin paying them, and if- if their estimation was right then in 20 years or so they may have a president on their payroll. And apparently, according to press reports, that’s the story of Cedras. It apparently also was the story of former president Prosper Avril, who ruled the country from 1988 to ’90- 1990, excuse me.
HOTTELET: What about the- what about the army which is the vehicle of Cedras’ power?
Mr. DANNER: Uh-huh.
HOTTELET: What is it? What sort of an army is it? Who’s in there? How do they get in? What do they do?
Mr. DANNER: Well, the army is, not to put too fine a point on it, essentially a protection racket. It’s not- It’s very different than most Latin American armies. The officer corps is very small. The soldiers are badly trained, if they’re trained at all, and badly paid. Essentially the army is a protector of the system of government that channels funds to a small group of Haitian elite and has done so for the last two centuries. What’s different, I think, in the current situation is that the army has managed on its own to take over a great number of the more lucrative- administrations, we could call them in the country, in other words-
HOTTELET: State enterprises?
Mr. DANNER: Right, exactly. The parastatal state enterprises, the flour mill-state flour mill, cement factory, the port, which is of course the most lucrative prize of all. So that now the army has its own sources of income and doesn’t have to rely on the wealthy who usually had them on salary. This may be a cause of some conflict or tension in the future, but it’s har- I think it’s too hard- it’s hard to tell right now.
HOTTELET: Would- Is it possible that these sanctions, the economic restrictions that have been imposed and this freezing of bank accounts and the rest, especially nominally of these- the leaders of this military group could freeze the money and make it impossible for them to continue to pay?
Mr. DANNER: I don’t- I don’t think so, because first of all, the actual freezing of funds happened so late in the game and with such a large degree of warning- it had been threatened for months that anyone, frankly, who had their funds frozen probably deserved it out of sheer stupidity. I mean, everyone moved their money. So I’d be very surprised if they got a substantial amount of money through that step or if it’s hurting anyone very badly. And of course, its a major inconvenience, obviously, but if we’re talking about- and we are talking about people who think they’re faced with the threat of extinction if Aristide returns, and some of these people do believe this, then the freezing of the funds weighs not terribly heavy on the- on the other side of the scale.
HOTTELET: What about the drug racket? Are they involved in drugs?
Mr. DANNER: Yes-
HOTTELET: That’s pretty lucrative.
Mr. DANNER: Well, certainly the Haitian military makes a lot of money out of drugs. That’s been publicly known for a long time. Essentially they make air fields available to people who are transhipping drugs. That’s essentially what it is. They don’t arrest people and the let them land on the island, refuel, and leave. And yes, that’s been a lucrative source of funds for years, back into the Duvalier era- Jean-Claude Duvalier, that is. That apparently continues and it apparently was part of the reason why the coup happened when it did, because the military believed that Aristide was trying to cooperate a little more fully with the DEA and they thought- some officers felt a little bit threatened. I don’t think it was a major reason, but certainly a substantial reason. So the drug trafficking certainly brings a flow of capital into the country, no question about it.
HOTTELET: Now this, sort of military protection racquet for the good of this tiny group- seems to have expectations of being around quite a while. These- this sort of person or this sort of leader tends to want to be legitimized. Are they branching out into politics? One- one hears that they’re trying to start a political party.
Mr. DANNER: Yes. They have started a political policy [sic] that’s called FRAM, the Front- Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress. And offices are opening in Haitian- all Haitian cities, Haitian towns, essentially they’re using this money to try to attract supporters on the civilian side. And they’re apparently having some success. One reporter who is there who I spoke to actually this morning- He was in a very pessimistic mood and this may be an exaggeration, but he said that if indeed the elections were held today he thought the people were so frightened that FRAM might win an election in Haiti. I don’t know if I would go that far, but apparently they are having success, partly because the rest of the political spectrum has com- been completely stifled.
HOTTELET: The elite, the fat cats, the, sort of, the moneyed class, has in the past supported the ‘Papa Doc’ and his- and his son and then the successive military and this one, but we’ve- one has heard reports that they have split away from Cedras. One doesn’t see much sign of it, but- is there any reason to think that these people will withdraw their support and that this would be a source of weakness for Cedras and his people?
Mr. DANNER: Well, I think that’s a very interesting question- very interesting question, and it’s hard to answer it simply. It’s certainly true that when we speak of the Haitian elite that word covers up a very diverse group of- of people. And, the military, from what I hear, has alienated some of these people, essentially by taking over their sources of income. But we are talking about, as I say, a number of different groups. There are the people who are dealing in the assembly products, who are mostly light-skinned, foreign-educated business-men, mulattoes, most of them. They- from all I hear, and from the people I’ve spoken to- are very uncomfortable with the present situation, because they depend for their livings on trade- on foreign trade. And their businesses have been devastated. On the other hand, there are a number of business men who became rich under Duvalier, particularly under the father- mostly black business men, who have done- who are closer to the military and I think have done better. So we have- we have definitely people with different interests, many of whom are not happy with the present situation. But the question- the implication of you question, the real question to answer is, will these people do anything? And will it have any effect? And I must tell you that I’m not very optimistic about anything happening from that quarter simply because- these people are cowed. So they are the people who support the current prime minister- at last, they support him, Robert Malval, who is coming to Washington today.
HOTTELET: Who is Aristide’s prime minister.
Mr. DANNER: Exactly. Aristide appointed him this summer.
HOTTELET: What about- What ever happened to the 67 percent of the- of the Haitian electorate that voted for Aristide three years ago? Have they vanished? Are they totally, totally cowed?
Mr. DANNER: No, I- They’re still there and I think Aristide is still very- very, very popular. And if a free election- I mean, it’s impossible to conceive of a free election today, but I think he certainly would still win if- if- you know, in our little mind construction of an election. But these people, predominantly, have very little power. They’re the people who are in the countryside who have very little land, who are starving, they’re the people in the slums. These are the great numbers of people who- who voted for Father Aristide and they are- He was the voice of- of the powerless. It’s a cliche to say it, but it happens to be true. So those people- Essentially, if yu live in a slum in Port-au-Prince, every night, virtually, you go inside your house and outside you hear automatic weapons and you hear firing and the soldiers are walking down the little dirt paths shooting their weapons off and if they find anyone outside they’ll kill them. So it’s a very effective form of- and efficient form of repression, which has been used to great effect since Father Aristide was- was ousted two years ago.
HOTTELET: What about the role of the church? The church is certainly not in cahoots with the- with the military and with- with this murder and these- these gangs of ttaches and thugs.
Mr. DANNER: Well, the question of the church again is a- is a complicated one and an interesting one. The church, since the Aristide era, certainly- the church is very divided. The hierarchy and this is a long and complicated story, but the upshot of it is that the hierarchy hated Father Aristide- hated him rather deeply and tried on a number of occasions to have him transferred out of the country.
Mr. DANNER: Well, as I say, it’s a long story with a lot of history. The short version of it is that during the early ’60’s, Francois Duvalier, ‘Papa Doc’, waged a major culture kampf[?] against the church. Bishops were attacked, masses were invaded by thugs, people were beat up- Priests were actually beaten up. Rome responded by excommunicating[?] Francois Duvalier. Eventually in 1966, Rome granted Duvalier a concordat, in which the dictator- Again, to shorten the story considerably – the dictator was granted approval of Haitian bishops. And he Haitianized the hierarchy. The hierarchy- hierarchy had been predominantly white and foreign-born. Anyway, he made it his hierarchy. He made the church in Haiti his creatures. Which he did with other institutions as well.
HOTTELET: But now on the Aristide side, what do they have against him?
Mr. DANNER: Well, Aristide stood for the uprooting of the Duvalierists[?]
system. And by the time Aristide became a puublic figure, the Duvalierist system had taken over the church. So- I mean, that’s the- the- not cynical but crude view. You could put it a little bit more kindly, I suppose and say that Aristide obviously was the exemplar of liberation theology and the hierarchy was deeply threatened by that, deeply threatened by what they saw as a revolt in the lower ranks that would put them at great political risk.
HOTTELET: Let me interrupt to-
Mr. DANNER: Sure.
HOTTELET: -tell our listeners that- remind them that we’re talking with Mark Danner of the New Yorker magazine who’s come to the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss the stalemate in Haiti. This is America and the World from National Public Radio.
In the light of all that you’ve said so far, what can be done, and by whom torectify this situation? The Organization of American States, the regional organization of the western hemisphere, is just sound and fury and Shakespeare said what that signifies.
Mr. DANNER: That’s true, it does signify nothing, I’m afraid. I must confess that I’m rather pessimistic about the situation in Haiti. I believe that the United States has shown over the last two years that though it says it would like to return Father Aristide to power, the obstacles to doing so have proved more difficult to surmount than the U.S. is willing to- the United States is not willing to take the steps required to return him to office. I don’t think that it’s high enough on the agenda of important issues for the administration to essentially force the Haitian military to take him back. And I think they’ve shown this- the Clinton administration and the Bush administration before have shown this by their actions again and again. And until there’s that sort of willingness and determination, I don’t think Aristide will return. I think now the question is, what will the next couple of years be like, and whether conditions will improve in Haiti at all or whether they will continue to degrade. I’m afraid that the Aristide question, I’m afraid, has been answered, which is that he won’t return.
HOTTELET: I think you have said that the United States wants stability in Haiti rather more than democracy.
Mr. DANNER: I think that’s true. And I think- again, I think this has been shown through the actions of the United States government. That in the end, when push comes to shove, they’re afraid of large-scale violence that may force them to intervene militarily. And that has been the bugbear[?] from the beginning, that we don’t want to have to go in there with military- with troops. And one of the ironies of the current stalemate is the ship that was turned back, as you mentioned – in October – now the American military is very reluctant to have anything to do with this situation. And in order for this agreement to be put back on track- I don’t know how this could be done, but if it could be a major obstacle now is the reluctance of the American military to participate in any way.
HOTTELET: Now that seems strange, because Haiti is quintessentially an American problem. It’s not like Bosnia, which is an European problem, or Somalia which is a U.N. problem. Haiti is by history, by proximity, in the Caribbean, as a source of these refugees. It’s an American problem. Why should the United States be reluctant, when all else has failed, to use whatever force is necessary at least to open it up for rectification?
Mr. DANNER: I think there is a belief on the part of many policy makers and people, certainly on the mid-levels, too, of the pentagon, the CIA, and possibly the State epartment, that as one State Department official told me, this is the original tar baby. Which is to say that we are going to grab it and we will never get free. There is an institutional memory of the occupation between 1915 and 1934. It was intended to be short. It ended up lasting almost two decades. And when people look at Haiti now- when people in the government look at Haiti now, particularly security officials, they see a nightmare. And they see how they could get in but they don’t see how they could get out. And I think that, in- in the absence of real political determination to do something about it, that sort of reluctance and fear is weighing heavily in the equation.
HOTTELET: I remember a story once of Joe Louis in a nightclub. A drunk comes wandering over to the- to the table and grabs Louis and says, ‘I can lick you anytime.’ And as everybody within earshot and sight freezes, Louis stands up, lifts the man up by his jacket, walks him back over to his table, and dumps him down. Because a punch from Joe Louis would have smashed him to smithereens. Is this the kind of reluctance that governs the American military calculation? We’ve had it for 19 years in-
Mr. DANNER: Right.
HOTTELET: -in the ’20s and thereabouts, so that we are frozen? Are we now totally incompetent to deal with this?
Mr. DANNER: I think there is the- the- certainly the military today is a post-Vietnam military. And we’ve seen this in Bosnia as well, that they’re very politically reluctant to get involved in places where they don’t see an exit, and where they think that they will be politically vulnerable. And I think this is certainly true of Haiti. I think this is one reason for the reluctance. I also think that there’s an uncomfortability factor with Aristide himself on the part of the intelligence agencies and possibly the military.
HOTTELET: Now the- Having ruled out, really, and signaled to the generals in- in Haiti that we’re not going to come in with force, with troops, the United States is counting on persuasion. And apparently they even pushed Aristide into signing an agreement, Governors Island in New York, last July, which- under which he was to go back to Haiti by the 30th of October and the generals were to leave, and foreign military presence was to be there. He thought it wasn’t- it wasn’t exactly kosher and- but he was pushed into it. What- what is in the mind of people who will push a man into what seems to be a fairly fallible, unsatisfactory agreement, because they think they can persuade the people who are the sources of all the trouble there?
Mr. DANNER: Well, I guess we said at the beginning that the Haitians know us better than we know them. And I think that is the key to understanding what happened at Governors Island, that the Haitian military came up here certain what they wanted to do. They wanted to have the sanctions lifted without taking him back. And they got an agreement that essentially did that. It had no enforcement. It had only provisions for reimposing the sanctions if they didn’t take him back. And it also had no real provisions for a house-cleaning in the Haitian military. Now, to have that sort of provision you probably would’ve had to have a threat, a credible threat of the use of force. And it was very clear that coming from this side there was no such threat. So the Haitian military essentially bought themselves time to stock up on fuel, to build a fortress, a mighty fortress that couldn’t be breached, and that is what they did.
HOTTELET: But the people who- who said, look we’ll- we’ll do all this, we’ll paper over these cracks just to have something that looks like an agreement and this will turn the generals around. They will- they will be persuaded that- to see the light. That- they will become- they will go along with this, they will walk off the stage. What misconception is at the root of that?
Mr. DANNER: Well, I think that’s a very good question, and we’ve seen it several times in America’s dealing with post-Duvalier Haiti. We saw it in 1987 in the fall when elections had been scheduled under the military regime of Henri Namphy. The U.S. kept saying, yes, there’s a lot of violence here, but the elections will come off, and as your listeners probably remember, there were attacks on election day that killed probably a hundred people on the polls and the elections were aborted in this enormous bloodshed. The situation before Governors Island was somewhat similar, and certainly the situation over the summer after Governors Island was signed, was very similar. You had a rising degree of violence in Port-au-Prince. You had signs that the agreement was breaking down and the reluctance of U.N. and U.S. officials to admit it. Now you ask what was in their minds. Well, I think they had- they knew what they had to work with and they knew that- what they didn’t have to work with and they thought that this was the best political agreement they could reach. And they thought by the use of U.S. prestige and carrots and stick and so on, they could work this so it would work.
HOTTELET: Wishful thinking?
Mr. DANNER: Well, that’s- that’s a summary.
HOTTELET: Thank you, Mr. Danner.
Mr. DANNER: My pleasure.
HOTTELET: We’ve been talking with Mark Danner, of the New Yorker magazine, whose articles on Haiti there and in the New York Review of Books and a- a great article in this issue of the New Yorker magazine on El Salvador, have won high praise. You’ve been listening to America and the World from the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard C. Hottelet.
Let me keep you a moment longer, Mr. Danner, to ask you about the controversial central figure in the Haiti drama, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The CIA says he’s a psychopath, Senator Jesse Helms says he’s a killer, President Clinton says he wants Aristide returned to office. Who is this man?
Mr. DANNER: Well, he’s a fascinating man, as you could- as you might know by seeing these diverse comments about him. He’s a 40-year-old Roman Catholic priest. A very tiny man and very frail-looking who has the enormous gift of oratory of the like that I certainly have never seen before. He has the ability to move crowds in a truly miraculous way through a brilliant use of Creole and through his defiant stand against dictatorship and against injustice, which has characterized his entire career. He has become something of a symbolic figure of a savior for Haitian- for Haitian- the Haitian poor and powerless. He- there’ve been a number of assassination attempts on him that have become- it’s almost like the scripture about him, you know, these different stories that people tell themselves of how they tried to kill Father Aristide and how he escaped. He is certainly a brilliant man, very intelligence- very intelligent, indeed. But I think when he was in office- I should say, first of all that I don’t- the business about a psychopath and so on from the CIA I think is a lot of baloney- It’s a smear. But it is true that he is given to depression, and that’s well known in Haiti and has been for years. But after- recently in the fall, Senator Helms used CIA documents that were of a very low classification level, essentially it was gossip, to denounce him, which I think was a very sad moment for our government. But he is a fascinating man
who, nonetheless, during his brief time in office made a number of very costly p olitical mistakes. He essentially was trying to rule- I mean he came to – He’s almost a revolutionary who came to office through an election, with all the contradictions that that implies. He tried to rule through direct appeals to the people and bypass the governmental machinery. And thereby he threatened not only the army but the elite. So his time in office remains very controversial, but he did achieve a number of things. The most important of which was, he reduced the level of insecurity on the streets of Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s other cities. People weren’t being killed every night while he was president, which is a very significant achievement for Haitians.
HOTTELET: Thank you again, Mark Danner. See you next time.