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28050: (news) Chamberlain: Aristide's last days (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

(St Petersburg Times, 28 Feb 06)

Aristide's last days

Two years ago Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into
exile, shocking his battered country. Haitians are still arguing: Did
he jump or was he pushed? Without answers, some say Haiti cannot move
forward. Now, a clearer picture has begun to emerge.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent

On the evening of Feb. 28, 2004, armed rebels were marching on the
capital. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, almost defenseless save for
his 50-strong security detail, picked up the phone.

It rang at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James Foley. Aristide had
decided to call it quits.

"We were completely stunned," said Foley. "We had not the slightest
inkling that he would be prepared to leave, on that day."

But two years later, nagging doubts still surround the manner of
Aristide's departure from office. Aristide has always insisted publicly
he was kidnapped in a coup d'etat backed by the United States.

"He was not persuaded at all," said Foley. "He decided himself to
leave. He feared he faced death if he could not get out."

Exiled in South Africa, Aristide is now talking of returning to Haiti
after the election earlier this month of his former ally Rene Preval as
the country's new president.

Some fear Aristide's return to Haiti could undermine Preval. Despite
allegations of drug trafficking and human rights abuses, Aristide
remains popular among Haiti's impoverished masses.

In large part this is because of popular resentment over the perceived
manner in which he was forced to leave the country.

"The big question is did Aristide jump, or was he pushed?" said Dan
Erikson, a Haiti analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington,
D.C. "It would help if there was greater clarity. It's entirely
possible that the U.S. played a positive role and didn't get any

* * *

Before the call to Foley, Aristide had been hanging tough. In a TV
address earlier on the 28th he vowed departure was "out of the

Aristide appealed to foreign governments for "a few soldiers" to
protect him from being overthrown. The rebels were a rag-tag bunch of
renegade former military officers backed by drug money, he protested.
But there was no appetite abroad to save Aristide's discredited regime.

His life was another matter.

Washington feared a bloodbath if the rebels attacked Port-au-Prince.
Aristide still had armed followers in the slums who would surely put up
a fight. As they came south the several hundred rebels were capturing
weapons and ammunition at police stations along the way.

"We feared that in that confrontation the president would be killed,"
said Foley. A six-man U.S. Army team was dispatched to Haiti, prepared
to mount a rescue of Aristide if necessary, he said.

The elite unit was to meet with Aristide's security personnel,
including the head of his bodyguards from the California-based Steele

Word came back that Aristide was ready to leave immediately, very
different from his earlier defiant broadcast.

At 8:30 p.m., Aristide called Foley. It was the beginning of a long
night. At first, Aristide wanted to know what the United States
considered the best option for ending the violence.

"He spoke very eloquently about his desire for peace," said Foley. "I
certainly told him that I was extraordinarily sorry that his term was
ending this way and I told him that I thought history would remember
him well as someone who made a sacrifice in the interests of the

Foley then rang Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Secretary Powell was stunned, and he asked me what was going to be the
consequence," he said. Foley replied that Aristide needed to be rescued
before the rebels reached the capital.

Foley and Aristide spoke several more times. "The biggest question he
had was where he wanted to go. He asked for some time to talk to his

Washington told Foley a plane would soon be on its way to fetch the
president. But Aristide would need to sign a formal resignation letter.

Foley worried that time was running out. So, apparently, was Aristide.

"During the night he had told me that he himself was extremely
concerned that if his followers, even his entourage, learned that he
was about to leave ... they might not let him," Foley said.

In fact, U.S. officials say Aristide told almost no one of his plans.
Even members of his Cabinet, including Prime Minister Yvon Neptune,
were kept in the dark.

Neptune told the Los Angeles Times he got a call from "somebody close
to Aristide" about 11 p.m. telling him to go to a meeting near
Aristide's residence in Tabarre. There he found the minister of
finance, Gustave Faubert, and a senator, Mirlande Liberis. Aristide
phoned again at 1 a.m. and spoke to each of them. When it was Neptune's
turn, he said, Aristide told him cryptically, "I am trying to undo
something in the making." Neptune was baffled.

At 4 a.m. Aristide called again. "He told me "I am like a prisoner. If
you want to leave, leave, or if you want to stay, stay,"' Neptune said.

Neptune was taken aback. "I didn't answer. I was furious because I
should not have been told that at the last minute."

Around the same time, the U.S. Embassy's second in command, Luis
Moreno, was on the way to Aristide's residence with the Army unit. They
had to clear debris and barricades along the largely deserted roads.
Their mission was to deliver Aristide safely to the airport.

When they arrived they met no opposition. In the driveway Moreno saw 40
to 50 armed Haitian police and the California security guards. They
ushered the diplomat inside.

A witness, palace security agent Casimir Chariot, confirmed Moreno's

"They were security officers dressed like us, with earpieces," said
Chariot. "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 was waiting with his bags packed. "Mr. President, you know why
I am here," Moreno said.

He addressed the president in Spanish, the language they had always
spoken since they first met a decade earlier. When the United States
invaded Haiti in 1994 to put Aristide back in power, Moreno had been
part of the team coordinating his return.

"Have you got something for me? I need that (resignation) letter,"
Moreno inquired.

"You know, Mr. Moreno, my word is my bond," he said, adding he would
get the letter at the airport.

"We have to get going," said Moreno. "It's nasty out there."

The airport was only a short distance away, but Moreno was concerned
that the rebels were on the way and pro-Aristide loyalists could return
to the streets.

Moments after leaving, Moreno was surprised to see Aristide's palace
security escort turn off the airport road, headed instead for downtown.
Aristide continued to the airport with the team from the Steele
Foundation. Only later did it dawn on Moreno that Aristide had
concealed the exit plan from his own guards, sending them to a bogus
palace meeting.

They waited on the tarmac for the plane's arrival. Moreno was getting
nervous. The sun was coming up. Word came the plane was about to land.
Moreno went over to Aristide's car and tapped at the window.

"I really need that letter now," he said.

Aristide didn't say a word, but reached over and took the letter from
his wife's purse. Moreno felt compelled to say something.

"I'm very sad to say goodbye in these circumstances," he said.

Aristide answered in English: "Well sometimes, Mr. Moreno, life is like

Moments later a large, white unmarked plane touched down. Aristide and
his wife hurriedly boarded. The Steele Foundation guards followed them.

At 6:15 a.m. the plane took off, headed for the Central African

Word of Aristide's departure spread quickly. Confusion reigned and the
capital braced for the arrival of the rebels.

Aristide's palace security team showed up in disbelief at a downtown
hotel near the palace, according to witnesses. They hid there for
several days fearing retaliation.

Moreno was at the palace securing Aristide's personal belongings when
he got wind that Aristide was claiming he had been kidnapped. After
arriving in Africa, Aristide had phoned Rep. Maxine Waters of
California, one of his staunchest U.S. supporters. "The world must know
it was a coup. I was kidnapped. ... I did not resign," Waters said
Aristide told her.

Moreno was surprised. "I knew what the facts were," he said. In fact,
he was feeling very good about the role he had played. "I was
disappointed. As a diplomat you train for moments like that. I really
feel we saved many, many lives that night."

The rebels arrived in the capital later that morning aboard trucks and
pickups and tried to storm the palace. Moreno was there with four other
diplomats armed with revolvers to stop them.

* * *

About three days later a phone in the prime minister's office reserved
for urgent business rang.

It was Aristide, calling from Africa. He asked to speak to Neptune.
"What are you still doing there?" Aristide demanded.

"I'm just doing my job," Neptune answered. Aristide reproached Neptune
for legitimizing the "coup." Neptune hung up on him.

He was furious, feeling Aristide had abandoned him to face the chaotic
aftermath. Within hours of Aristide's departure the house where Neptune
lived was burned down. He would later be jailed, where he remains today.

"I won't answer that phone again," he told an assistant. "Don't pick it

Times correspondent Chantal Regnault in Port-au-Prince contributed to
this report.