In September 1994, President Bill Clinton launched Operation Uphold Democracy, the military occupation of Haiti by U.S. forces. The operation was launched out of desperation in the U.S. about how to stop the flow of refugees from the country, which is the most impoverished in the western hemisphere. In one of the most bizarre incidents in recent American foreign policy, the invasion force landed to face no resistance as Haitian dictator Raoul Cedras surrended to an all-star American negotiating team comprising former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.

This is a story of indecision and the inability of the U.S. to match means to ends. The U.S. intervention in Haiti was not carried out like Washington believed in it, and as such its impact was small; the stated long-term goals of the U.S. were not accomplished, and Haiti remains impoverished.


Haiti is the only country that has ever been formed from a successful slave rebellion and was the first black republic. However, Haitian politics has almost always been chaotic and brutal and the Haitian state is not representative. "It is not an exaggeration," wrote one analyst in 1997, "to claim that the rural areas of Haiti comprised a colony of the urban elites". The urban elite is French-speaking whereas the majority of the country's inhabitants speak Creole; the Creole word for "bully" and "the state" is the same.

The country was ruled by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier from 1957 to 1971, and then by his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier until 1986. Then there were a series of military dictatorships which held nominal elections that featured widespread repression and vote-fixing. Finally, the regime tried to kill the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, leading to widespread outcry and a colonels' coup. These plucky fellows delivered a legitimate election which carried Aristide into the state's highest office with two-thirds of the vote. He then tried to dismantle the power of the military, but received a sharp reminder of who was really in control when a coup led by Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras unseated him.

Enter Clinton

Aristide fled to New York, where he met a frosty reception from the Bush administration. The CIA retained links with the Haitian military and were convinced that Cedras was the right man for the job of governing the country; they portrayed Aristide as mentally unstable and immoral. However, the coup had led to the beginning of a huge exodus of Haitians, as thousands of refugees tried to cross from Haiti to the United State to flee the new regime. President George H. W. Bush's policy was to repatriate the refugees, who were viewed as economic migrants rather than political refugees. Of course, if they hadn't had a good political reason to leave before doing so, they sure as hell weren't going to be looked upon too favourably by the General upon their return.1

As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton chose to attack Bush's policy on Haitian refugees during the 1992 election. This had the unfortunate effect of convincing tens of thousands of Haitians that the time had come to make a boat out of, say, a car, and try to paddle to the U.S. Clinton had to quickly reverse his statements and was quickly defending a similar line to the Bush administration's. On this issue as on many other, Clinton might have oozed charm and said all the right things, but his essential character as a smooth-talking seducer was shown by his inability to actually please everyone at once as he always promised he would.

This bactrack was most of all reminiscent of his similar switch on Bosnia (before election: "I'll sort it out"; after election: "I hope this problem goes away on its own"). He committed himself to promoting democracy and human rights in Haiti, but in practice this meant the UN and the Organization of American States would try to negotiate the removal of the dictator, with the dictator. Progress was highly unlikely as departure was hardly the favoured option in chez Cedras. The situation was made worse by the fact that some branches of the American government were still actually co-operating with Cedras, making him believe he could ride out the storm. And, for nearly two years of U.S. indecision, he did.

Things heat up

If the junta in Port-au-Prince had played its cards right, it might still be there today. Instead, it strived to outdo itself in committing human rights violations and flouting international agreements, leading to a tightening of sanctions. Cedras actually agreed on a handover of power and then merely ignored it when the time for implementation came, which was a huge embarrassment to the administration. What was even worse was what happened when a U.S. Navy ship, the Harlan County, arrived to deliver military trainers as part of the deal.

The men on the ship were lightly armed, despite the fact they were heading into an unstable and hostile country. They had no plan for what to do if they encountered resistance; no-one in the military had come up with a viable contingency option, and no civilian had pressured them to do so. This was a real sign of U.S. drift in foreign policy after the Cold War, and the lack of interest in such matters which predominated in the Clinton administration. Hence, when the ship got there and was confronted by an armed mob bearing placards which told the sailors to "Remember Mogadishu" (they could hardly forget - the death of eighteen American soldiers there had happened only two weeks earlier), they could only turn tail and beat a humiliating retreat. What's more, it's likely the CIA still maintained contacts with the group who organized the protest - an example of what can happen when a president doesn't get everyone on board with his policies.

Even though the world's only remaining superpower had been seemingly humiliated by one of its poorest nations, Clinton still wasn't about to invade. The military was opposed to an invasion because it didn't want to be responsible for what would happen afterwards, and there was a low level of public and congressional support for such an action anyway. The Clinton administration continued to tout bold goals, but they clearly didn't highly esteem their accomplishment; it took a dramatic increase in the number of refugees and the expulsion of human rights monitors nearly a year later to finally force Washington's hand. Luckily, the operation was more comedy than tragedy; yet that's hardly the ideal way for a country to go about international affairs either.

The invasion

Clinton continued to hedge his bets, and rightly hoped he could convince the junta to lay down its arms without a fight. Cedras knew that his military didn't stand a chance against the Americans, but was likely to believe that they were bluffing because he'd got away with so much and was convinced that the U.S. would never invade (sound familiar?). However, the dispatch of three of America's most eminent political figures to the island when the invasion was imminent was not a stroke of genius. Former JCS Chairman Colin Powell, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and former President Jimmy Carter could well have ended up stranded in the middle of a war zone, or hostages of Cedras. The military commander in charge of the operation was reduced to watching the latest on the negotiations on CNN, shouting obscenities at the screen to the effect that it was time for the men to leave.

Cedras only agreed to leave when he learned, again via CNN, that the 82nd Airborne Division was on the way. The deal that was eventually reached between the three men and Cedras allowed the junta to go into exile on favourable terms. Carter was openly sympathetic towards Cedras and described himself as "ashamed" of the U.S. occupation. I suppose one might be conciliatory towards a dictator who could take you hostage, but the result of this was certainly not a public relations victory for the U.S. in any sense.

Once the junta had left and the refugee flow stopped, Washington quickly lost interest in what happened next. Aristide went back and the first peaceful transfer of power in Haitian history occurred shortly thereafter, but stability and economic growth eluded the country. Because the U.S. military had been thinking about the invasion for a while, it developed a joint political-military operations plan for the aftermath; this was the first such project of its kind. But the contents are telling - the military wanted a short occupation which would allow them to get out quickly; after six months, in fact. This showed the effect that the Battle of Mogadishu had on the U.S., and how little interest there was in such a chronicly weak state, even though it was close to the U.S.

U.S. policy towards Haiti had been extremely ad hoc and did not form part of a coherent plan. The Clinton White House hoped that democracy and markets would spread around the world of their own accord, and didn't show much interest in hastening the process where it proved ineffective. U.S. forces were just passing through, just as they did in so many other places inbetween the end of the Cold War and September 11, 2001. Haiti's problems remain grave and a possible danger to the U.S. in this globalized and interconnected world, whereas its lesson - the difficulty of reforming a country, and the need for a coherent plan and a dedicated effort in doing so - remained ignored in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

1. Those refugees who were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard on the high seas got sent to Camp Bulkeley, which was a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It got declared unconstitutional by a district court judge in 1993, but this decision was then overturned; it closed in 1995 as part of a deal about the overturning of the decision. This aspect of Guantanamo Bay's history gets mention in the 1996 song "Ready Or Not" by the Fugees, in which Wyclef sings "I refugee from Guantanamo Bay / dance around the border like I'm Cassius Clay". Also worth mentioning is that anyone who was allowed to enter the U.S. could only get in if they weren't HIV positive.

More to read

A great source from which I draw a quote ("It is not an exaggeration...") is Irene P. Stotzky, Silencing the Guns in Haiti: The Promise of Deliberative Democracy (London, 1997). Another and more recent is Robert Fatton Jr., Haiti's Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy (London, 2002). David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (London, 2001) is indispensible to an understanding of this period, whereas Bill Clinton, My Life (New York, 2004) and Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward, Madam Secretary (New York, 2003) expose the intermittent concern of the administration.

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