Were Haitian Police Behind Assassination Attempt on Aristide?
Jeb Sprague-Silgado says the firing on the former president’s motorcade took place in the context of mass voter disenfranchisement and an attempt to rearrange the country politically away from left forces
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, survived an assassination attempt last Friday when gunmen opened fire on Aristide’s motorcade. Two bystanders were injured when Aristide himself escaped unhurt.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide served as an immensely popular president for six months in 1991, and then again from 2001 to 2004, and was ousted both times in a coup. The new evidence has emerged recently in relation to the 2004 coup against Aristide.
According to a report in the newspaper, Haiti Liberté, U.S. DEA agents kidnapped paramilitary leader Guy Philippe, and he was also arrested by Haitian law enforcement last month. Philippe himself was instrumental in organizing the capture of Aristide in 2004 at the behest of U.S. agents in Haiti. Philippe says that he was captured so he would not be able to testify about U.S. responsibility for the coup against Aristide.
Joining us today to talk about these recent developments in Haiti is Jeb Sprague-Silgado. Jeb is the author of “Para-militarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti”. He also teaches sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Jeb thank you so much for joining us.
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Thanks so much, Kim, for having me.
KIM BROWN: Before we get to the story about Guy Philippe, let’s take a look at what happened earlier this week with the assassination attempt against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Are there any indications about who the attackers were, and why they may have targeted him?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Yeah, it’s actually become very clear. There’s video footage and numerous witnesses to this attack. So, it’s very clear that it was what’s called the BIM, the motorized brigade police force in the country. This is a fairly new police force that has been founded after the earthquake. Where their police, some of them were trained specially in Ecuador. Some of them are members of former paramilitary groups that were inserted into the Haitian National Police, and so it’s considered like the strong arm of the police force.
Basically, what happened then was that Aristide was returning from a court appearance when his car was driving down the John Brown Avenue in the capital, in Port-au-Prince. And there were around a thousand supporters of the Lavalas movement that were accompanying his car in the streets. He still maintains popularity with a significant part of the population.
Once they crossed… they’re nearing this intersection, this special unit of the Haitian police force opens fire on these people and this group marching, and Aristide’s car in which he is traveling. And one of his security guards is hit in the arm. A woman nearby the car actually takes two or three, possibly four, bullets, and is very, very bloodied by the attack.
The Haitian police have tried to say that, well, the crowd was throwing rocks, and then they opened fire. But other witnesses say that the Haitian National Police began opening fire first and then rocks started to be thrown and bullet shots were returned.
But this says something more broadly of the Haitian National Police that they’re opening fire –- they have video footage. They’re not shooting in the air; they’re shooting down at the unarmed civilian population in the streets. They’re shooting directly at them. The video shows this very clearly.
And so, it’s important here – and none of the news has reported this yet – but it’s important to remember that after the 2004 coup d’état, that 400 to 500 ex-army paramilitaries were integrated into the Haitian National Police. So, the police force, after the coup, had these paramilitary groups brought into it while at the same time a lot of the police, around 500, 600 police that had been loyal to the ousted government — or the constitutional government — those police were removed from the force.
So, you really see a restructuring of Haiti’s security apparatus after the coup. And that’s the context that this recent event has happened in.
KIM BROWN: Jeb, do we have any indications as to why anyone, or whoever made the attempt on Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s life, why do they want him dead?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Since the mid-1980s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he’s faced over half a dozen assassination attempts. And this includes even an attack in a church prior to his first election when they came in — attachés, these former Tontons Macoutes, who were being supported by the military at the time, and in the late 1980s they came in – and, in an attempt to assassinate him, killed a number of parishioners in his church. And we see attempt after attempt over the years to either kill him, get rid of him, demonize him, remove him from the political scene, and his movement.
And so really what we’re seeing right now over the last decade, especially after the earthquake in Haiti, is an attempt to politically rearrange the country, and to do this alongside an economic restructuring of the country. So, as they’re building up more attempts to have more export processing zones, with the World Bank and the U.S. funding this, they’ve also, since the earthquake, and what we can think of like Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, we really see a shock doctrine after the earthquake. Now, around 15% of the country is up for mining, where they have mining permits that have been handed out illegally, violating a lot of the country’s laws on mining.
So, they’re really attempting a facelift to the country’s political arena alongside this. They do this, for example, through voter intimidation, through demonization in the media of the popular left-leaning movements, really, voter intimidation and trying to splinter the popular movement. We see this in the recent election, where the popular movement was really splintered into two political currents.
Also, these high-tech electoral campaign companies coming into the country to run these campaigns for the right wing in the country, and so they’re really trying to rearrange the country politically, and you can map this out. If you go back to the 1990s and to the 2000s, even the 2006 election, there were around 60% turnout.
Even more earlier, but the majority of the country of the voting age population were voting. Now, since the earthquake, under this new shock doctrine and the election that brought Martelly to office in 2010 and 2011, there was only around 20% turnout. Now, again, in this recent election, there was only 20% turnout.
So, you really see a mass voter disenfranchisement and an attempt to rearrange the country politically.
KIM BROWN: Last month, a new conservative president, Jovenel Moïse, was inaugurated. What kinds of policy programs is he pursuing?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Jovenel Moïse, he’s really a handpicked ally of Michel Martelly, the former president in the country. Both of them come out of this neo-Duvalierist political strand in the country and they have some other political allies and opportunist groups that they’ve sort of banded together under their alliance. There’s also a growing evangelical sector in the country, a lot of evangelical missionaries going into the country.
There’s also a small growing middle-strata in the country, often linked to NGOs and some of the businesses coming into the country. So, they’ve been able to build on this sort of alliance, that’s more right-oriented, pro-business, elite-oriented grouping in the country. They have a number of campaign promises and like we see in the electoral campaigns of these elite-oriented electoral arenas.
Importantly, though, one of the things they’re trying to do is they want to rebuild the military. The military was disbanded in 1995 under the first Aristide government. And so, the military in the country has been used for many decades as a force for internal repression. It was initially built up under the first U.S. occupation in the early 20th century. And then it was used under the Duvalier dictatorship, and then up through the 1980s, and it was used in the first coup against Aristide in 1991.
And so, he disbanded the military, and so, similar to Cost Rica, trying to build a country that had a strong police force but with no military. And so, as we see then a lot of the most violent rightist sectors come out of this former military, paramilitary strata, that really see Lavalas as the main threat, the Lavalas movement, as the main threat to them being able to reproduce their power and impunity in society.
KIM BROWN: We are speaking with Jeb Sprague-Silgado about the transition, and the ever-changing political landscape in Haiti, especially coming on the heels of a recent assassination attempt of the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
So, stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation right here on The Real News Network.
KIM BROWN: Welcome back to The Real News Network for Part 2 of our conversation with Jeb Sprague-Silgado about Haiti, and the continuing evolution of the political landscape in Haiti.
Jeb, before we went to the break, we were talking about the new president, Jovenel Moïse; and Mr. Moïse finds himself embroiled in a bit of scandal, because there is a money-laundering cloud of suspicion that he finds himself under. Can you tell us about this and whether or not you think the case against him will move forward?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Yeah. This is a common occurrence with this Neo-Duvalierist grouping in the country, their involvement in corruption and these sorts of activities. And in a country where there’s such… there’s competition over very much a lack of resources, and this is… you have to understand this in the context of colonialism and underdevelopment over hundreds of years, and foreign occupation.
So you see issues of corruption playing out in the political scene in Haiti often, but within this Neo-Duvalierist grouping in particular, it’s been a common occurrence.
So the current candidate… sorry, the current… who’s already been sworn into office, Jovenel Moïse, this current president, he’s already embroiled in these major corruption charges. If he will actually be held to account, or if they’ll have a legitimate investigation, and court trial into it, that I’m very doubtful of.
KIM BROWN: What are they accusing him of doing?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: There are different sorts of… with his agricultural enterprises and different businesses of moving around money, it’s pretty complicated.
But the major problem, though, is that the court system in the country, since the 2004 coup, it also has been completely altered. So this is another story, that not many people know about, but there were dozens of judges who were removed from their positions after the coup.
There were also hundreds of former military members and, actually, their financiers, elites in the country, who court cases had been built up throughout the 1990s – and in the early 2000s – court cases had been built up about their involvement in funding these neo-FRAP paramilitary death squads, about their role in funding; and court cases also built up about the paramilitaries and killing people, carrying out massacres, like a big part of the Souverain family and a lot of other families that were really brutally massacred in the early 2000s; and so there were court cases. And so after the coup, these court cases were completely ended – they were wiped out of the judicial system, and a lot of the judges and even some of the lawyers were removed from Haiti’s judiciary.
Now, in the country, for example, some years ago, I interviewed Louis-Jodel Chambain, the founder of the FRAP death squads, who was living in the Hotel Ibo Lélé in Pétionville in Port-au-Prince, and with complete impunity. He was living in a hotel room next to UN officials and other wealthy families coming from the Diaspora to visit, staying at the hotel. He was living… he openly spoke with me. He has no fear of being arrested. This is the founder of the FRAP death squads, who was the second lieutenant to Guy Philippe, when they carried out the attack before the coup.
And so, the court system in the country is really a mockery of what they were attempting to build in this democratic interregnum that they were attempting prior to the coup.
KIM BROWN: You know, Jeb, you were talking about the paramilitary aspect of this, and I want to get to Guy Philippe and what has happened to him.
So, Guy Philippe, he’s a paramilitary leader in Haiti. He was taken to the United States last month on drug trafficking charges that stem from 2005, and here we are in 2017. I mean, why does the U.S. want him now, 12 years later, on drug charges? I mean, was it possible that he was about to divulge important information about American involvement in the 2004 coup against Aristide, in your opinion?
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: No. No, he was not going to divulge any information. He is always trying to promote himself as a nationalist sort of renegade, and he’s very much been like a poster boy for the right wing in the country, as a handsome sort of charismatic speaker in front of the media lens.
But right now, he’s being held in jail in South Florida, and he’s being brought in front of the federal court in Miami. So, why was he arrested? Why was he arrested now in December of 2016? That’s the question. Guy Philippe –- it’s important here to look at the long history and how it’s ended up.
So Guy Philippe, initially as a part of what they call the Ecuadorians, this new military unit that was trained in Ecuador, and so he… in the late 1990s when Préval is in office — the man who was elected after Aristide — Préval inserts this Ecuadorian group of these military officers being trained in Ecuador, he inserts them into the police force. They end up becoming some of the most brutal police chiefs in the country.
They had received training in part from U.S. trainers. He then ends up allying with a lot of elites in the country; he turns against the government; and when he starts to come under criticism for his brutal tactics, he ends up fleeing to the Dominican Republic with a few other of these real far rightwing former military police chiefs.
In the early 2000s, this becomes the new paramilitary… or this becomes a paramilitary insurgency that… This is what my whole book is about, the 2012 book I published called, “Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti”, where it looks at this contra-paramilitary campaign that got very little media coverage.
It looks at the mass violence, their attacks on families, on Lavalas officials, even their attempted attack on the Péligre Dam which produces the majority of the electricity for Port-au-Prince, and it also looks at their financiers within the Dominican military, within elite strata in Haiti and also their CIA and French intelligence connections.
And so this really is key, then, for understanding the 2004 coup; because this paramilitary insurgency creates a lot of chaos and havoc, that then the government is trying to respond to; and the government is completely starved for resources, and they’re trying to lash out at the attack of the paramilitaries; and so it creates this very vicious whirlpool within the country in early 2004.
So, Philippe, then, as really the media poster boy of this paramilitary insurgency, he plays a key role. So, after the coup, he leaves the capital. He goes to his small hometown on the southern peninsula of Haiti, a town called Pestel on the very far tip of the island.
And so, other paramilitaries stay in Port-au-Prince, and are used to really –- you know, what they call a social cleansing campaign – where they really attack Cité Soleil and Bel Air, and carry out these very, very brutal campaigns against supporters of the ousted government.
But Philippe, he’s out of the capital. And so over the next decade, he’s living out in Pestel. But from time to time he gives these interviews. And he becomes sort of a loose cannon, because he’s saying, you know, he starts criticizing some of his former allies, he’s saying things about the U.S., and the U.S. doesn’t like that. When they have a local person that they’re using from time to time, they don’t want them then being a loose cannon.
And he’s also involved with cocaine, narco-trafficking, and so now the belief then is that there was a conflict between the CIA and the DEA, where the DEA really wanted to go after him because of his involvement in narco-trafficking; whereas the CIA, they have local proxies and things that they use at different times in a lot of countries.
And so… they’re trying to understand the context then. So now in late 2016, Philippe, he enters the political arena. So already in 2006, he had tried to become a Haitian senator, but he only received 2% of the vote, so he really failed in that attempt. But now in 2016, where we only have 20% of the people voting — they don’t have a majority or 60% voting like they did in previous elections – now he’s able to supposedly, quote-unquote, “win” an election in 2016, and so to become a senator.
And so what happens then is, in December he returns to Port-au-Prince, and he is giving an interview at a radio station; and it’s just a day before he’s going to be sworn in to office. And that’s when the Haitian National Police and the DEA move in, arrest him and take him to Florida.
KIM BROWN: Well, we will certainly be trying to monitor what happens with the fate of Guy Philippe as he faces prosecution here in the United States. And obviously Haiti’s own internal political structure is always one for fascination, especially when you consider how external factors, like American influence and the influence of the United Nations, impact how the little island is governed.
So, Jeb, we appreciate your time today in joining us to talk about this. Thank you.
JEB SPRAGUE-SILGADO: Thanks so much, Kim.
KIM BROWN: We’ve joined by Jeb Sprague-Silgado. He is the author of, “Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti”. He’s also a sociology professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
And thank you all for watching The Real News Network.