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The Quiet American: Our Man in Haiti
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In its recent obituary on Ambassador Al Adams, my former boss, the New York Times mentions his getting Haitian dictator Prosper Avril out of bed in the middle of the night and convincing him to pack his bags and leave the country by daybreak.

Adams’ success in getting Avril to fly off to US exile owed more to his quiet persuasive powers than to heavy-handed US power politics. He embodied much that was good about America along with a characteristic American faith in universal electoral democracy that is often problematic. Haiti had little to offer other than its geographical potential for adding problems to the US war on drugs and cooperation on a 1981 agreement on repatriating migrants picked up at sea. Both those interdiction efforts were working relatively well at the time. Haiti was not.

The Adams-Avril anecdote is worth expounding upon because it doesn’t quite fit the narrative preferred by critics who see material gain (e.g. by weapons merchants or other capitalists) as the monocausal motive behind US foreign policy. While that policy is never motivated purely by altruism there was a prevailing belief that the US could help make things a lot better for Haiti and a bit better for itself, at little cost to itself.

The ambassador and Haiti’s dictator had been at odds since the evening Adams arrived in Port au Prince and quoted a Haitian Creole proverb that a loaded donkey (bourrique chargé) should not stop until arriving at destination. He was alluding to continuous postponements of elections, following the end of the Duvalier family dictatorship, by General Avril and the previous military government. Envoys are usually expected to refrain from public political statements at least until after they present their formal letters of credence. So Adams’ remarks were seen as a breach of protocol. The infuriated Avril reacted by postponing their initial scheduled meeting. But for Haiti’s opposition and thousands of poor, Adams’ admonition made him something of a folk hero. Crowds chanting “bourrique chargé” were common when he appeared at public events.

In January 1990, just months later, Avril declared a state of emergency following a failed visit to Taiwan to gin up financial support that the US was withholding pending free elections. Haiti strikes many as an ongoing state of emergency, but anti-government demonstrations were growing in intensity then. On Saturday March 10, they led to about 20 deaths. To avoid more bloodshed and Avril’s being held directly responsible for it, Adams offered him US asylum. An Air Force plane waited in North Carolina Sunday night to fly down and whisk Avril and family into exile. It had to be done before morning mass demonstrations would block access to the airport. Adams and several of us in his staff waited patiently at the embassy for Avril’s promised decision. Finally, Adams called his home at midnight and was told by the housekeep that the general was asleep. He told her to wake him and then told Avril that he was coming out to talk to him personally.

To preclude possible misunderstanding, he took along a junior political officer – Steve — who spoke the best French among us. The general was in his robe when they arrived and — as Steve later told it — excused himself after an hour’s heart-to-heart talk in order to get a final decision from his wife. No sooner had he gone upstairs, the general’s dog pissed on the leg of the chair where he had been sitting. One wondered, had Avril known of this lack of canine respect, whether the dog would have been among the few treasured possessions, along with wife and housekeeper, that Avril requested to take with him on the awaiting Air Force plane. The latter arrived in Port-au-Prince in the nick of time. And the next chapter of trying to fix Haiti began. It was a fix that — as the bold young diplomat Steve had warned Adams after his arrival in country — could only be done by the Haitians themselves.

And the Haitians did give it a try. The military kept its part of the bargain that Adams helped forge and allowed elections to take place the following December. He responded with a rare display of pique to my expressed doubts during the interim months as to whether the largely illiterate population was ready for electoral democracy. No matter how poor and uneducated, he said, “these people have a right to a say in who governs them.” His decency and commitment to the process was so genuine that I felt ashamed for questioning its feasibility.

As the presidential election drew near, he instructed his team to warn our contacts against sabotaging it. I was to tell my “MRE” contacts that there would be dire consequences for their US financial dealings if they tried to prevent a fair vote from taking place. The MRE acronym for “morally repugnant elites” was coined by American vice consuls who regularly struggled with attempts by Haiti’s upper classes to subvert US visa rules. The young diplomats used it jokingly and often unfairly for business contacts I cultivated as head of the embassy’s economic-commercial section. Many of those Haitians could simply not believe the US would “allow” a victory by Jean Bertram Aristide, the radical priest adored by “the masses” and famous for anti-US diatribes. Upon hearing the message, one angrily blurted out “you’re surely not going to allow that mad man to take office”? It was a widespread conviction in Haiti that even acts of nature did not occur without US approval.

Aristide himself had doubts. Weeks before he won the election, as expected, I tried to assure him as we sat together on a flight to Miami that the US was sincere in its commitment. He had heard so many positive things about Adams that he was inclined to believe it, he said. And indeed, the relationship got off to a good start, in spite of some violent attempts to thwart his inauguration. Nevertheless, doubts about Aristide’s sanity flourished. Most alarmingly among the military leadership! An American businessman in a team of visiting potential investors invited to the new president’s “White House” asked me after listening to Aristide talk if I had seen the film “Being There.” That’s “Peter Sellers” he quipped, making an analogy between Aristide and the film’s simple-minded gardener whose mysterious utterances got mistaken for profound thinking. But stories about Haitians questioning the president’s sanity got put to a stop at a staff meeting when an exasperated Adams petulantly reminded us that he was legitimately elected and we would work with him come what may.

A coup d’état ousted Aristide before the year 1991 ended. Adams and two other ambassadors formed a human shield to protect him from possible assassination as they ushered him from his hiding place to safety aboard a US-bound airplane. A follow-up US led international economic boycott tried to facilitate Aristide’s return to office. Eventually, his restoration took three years and the help of nearly 25,000 American military personnel.

Aristide had never followed through on his earlier campaign threat to abrogate a 1981 bilateral agreement under which the US interdicted boatloads of migrants heading for the US. After prescreening the vast majority aboard Coast Guard cutters, about 25,000 were deemed ineligible for asylum and returned to Haiti in the decade preceding Aristide’s deposal. The numbers swelled after that and the agreement was suspended. But after a constitutional challenge, the US Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in 1993 that aliens on the high seas were not entitled to the protection accorded to refugees under a UN protocol.

Adam’s faith in electoral democracy must have been challenged again when, years after we had moved on to other assignments, Aristide’s second term in office was marked by quasi-anarchy and insurrection. This time around, the US & France pressured him to leave Haiti, as Avril and Baby Doc Duvalier had been pressured before him. The people do have a right to a voice in who governs them, but it is becoming increasing clear that such rights cannot be significantly protected by outside intervention. My “MRE contact” that reacted so incredulously upon hearing of our intent to respect the 1990 election results uttered a bitter follow-up:“You come here for a few years, preach your ideals, then move on and leave it for us to deal with the mess that follows.” The country’s mess and charm had been part of the scene, however, during more than a century of the US basically ignoring its existence, a mess reflected decades earlier by the title of a book “Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth.” But having insisted on elections, the mess became partially our responsibility. America’s own electorate might have expected Haitian elections as a condition for resumed US economic assistance. Quite possibly the Haitians would have been better off without either.

Quite possibly too, a sovereign right of a nation to create its own mess can clash with the right of neighboring states to protect themselves from the spillover. Intervention may then become the only viable resort. As countries of Europe grapple with the spillover from failed states closer to their own homes, they can look with envy at the US ability to pressure a vastly weaker neighbor like Haiti to acquiesce in an arrangement such as the 1981 migrant interdiction and repatriation accord. The source of Europe’s refugee catastrophe can offer far greater resistance. But the greatest obstacle to resolving that crisis is a reigning idealism in Europe regarding refugee rights, an idealism that would make Al Adams’ far more worldly and sophisticated humanitarianism seem almost callous by comparison. He was not the Graham Greene kind of Quiet American, though his passionate commitment to an ideal of democracy also overestimated our potential for constructively nurturing it on foreign soil.

Gene Tuttle is a retired Foreign Service Officer living in Vienna, Austria

• Category: History • Tags: Haiti 
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  1. Rehmat says:

    Every time I read praise heaped on someone by the Israeli propaganda organ NYT – I feel very bad feeling in my mouth. How would Mr. Tutle had felt if some foreign country’s ambassador, for example, let us say, Pakistan, have urged Barack Obama to pack-up and take refuge in his favorite entity, Israel? After all, Obama has killed more civilians in Pakistan than Haitian dictator did.

    Haiti has been target of the US imperialism for a long time.

    On January 23, 2010 – Russian online daily Pravda claimed that Russian Northern Fleet indicates that the earthquake that devastated Haiti was clearly the result of US Navy weapon test meant for Islamic Iran. Venezuelan president Hugo Chevez has blamed Obama’s Zionist administration for using the disaster to occupy Haiti. Washington has dispatched 11,000 US soldiers to the country while blocking the humanitarian aid reaching the country. It’s feared that 200,000 people including 21 Canadian have died as the result of the eartquake.

    Avraham Zuroff writing in Israeli daily Arutz Sheva had reported that Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure’s Geographic Institute will carry-out a test in the southern Negev Desert in order to stimulate an earthquake on behalf of US Defence Department. according to the daily: “Israel will create a controlled explosion of 80 tons of explosive material which will stimulate the intensity of a tremor after an earthquake on magnitude 3. Natural earthquakes of similar intensity occur in the Middle East region about once a week without the public feeling them”.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  2. What a pathetic charade. While I am by no means surprised, I can only continue to shake my head at the sincere, earnest faith so many of our best men have in universal democracy.

    Haitians are no more capable of governing themselves than toddlers are. There’s no reason whatsoever the country merits independence, and frankly I can’t think of one good reason Haitians shouldn’t be enslaved again.

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “It was a widespread conviction in Haiti that even acts of nature did not occur without US approval.”
    Ever in the Middle East, it’s about cause-and-effect.

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