By Peter Slevin and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
It was shortly after 4 a.m. on Sunday, U.S. diplomat Luis Moreno recalled, when he pulled up to the gate of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s walled compound in the suburb of Tabarre. He was traveling with a fellow U.S. diplomat and six State Department security officers.
The lights were on, Moreno said, and Aristide was awake. The bespectacled former Roman Catholic priest met Moreno, the U.S. Embassy’s second-ranking officer, at the door with his suitcases packed.
“You know why I’m here,” Moreno recalled saying in Spanish, the language they had spoken to each other during 10 years of professional association.
“Yes, of course,” he quoted Aristide as replying, also in Spanish.
Moreno, dispatched to escort Aristide to a U.S. jetliner that would fly him into exile, said he told Aristide that security was bad on the airport road and they should leave right away. They climbed into separate vehicles, Moreno said, without saying more than a few words to one another.
Aristide’s version of that final encounter was rather different.
He said he was kidnapped by U.S. forces and expelled from Haiti.
“I believe they perpetrated a coup here,” Ira Kurzban, Aristide’s Miami attorney, said in an interview. “We’re demanding the return of the president to Haiti — the democratically elected leader of Haiti.”
Now that Aristide is gone, his final hours in power are being dissected for clues about how he fell and what it says about the maneuvering of an autocrat and a U.S. government that ultimately pressed him to quit.
Aristide’s early insistence that he was hauled from power against his will led to calls for an investigation from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In later interviews, he altered the suggestion that he had been physically kidnapped, saying instead that the Bush administration had conducted a “a coup d’etat, a modern way to have a modern kidnapping.”
Aristide described conversations with U.S. officials who were warning him, as were his own aides, that order had broken down in the Haitian capital on Saturday. Rebel militias demanding Aristide’s ouster were not far from the city. The streets were becoming more violent and the president’s safety was growing more uncertain.
“American agents talked to me. Haitian agents talked to me,” Aristide told CNN from exile in the Central African Republic. “And I finally realized it was true. We were going to have bloodshed. And when I asked how many people may get killed, they said thousands may get killed.”
With that, Aristide told the network, he decided to resign. Attempts to reach Aristide through Kurzban yesterday were unsuccessful.
U.S. authorities adamantly denied abducting the Haitian leader. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called the allegation “absurd.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan derided the claim as “complete nonsense.”
In a sequence described by administration officials, Aristide’s security team members met with embassy security personnel on Saturday as violence spread. They were told that if Aristide wanted American help in leaving, he had to decide quickly.
That day — two days after Powell signaled that the Bush administration would no longer back a power-sharing arrangement — an Aristide emissary contacted U.S. Ambassador James Foley to say the Haitian leader was considering stepping down.
U.S. officials said Aristide wanted to know what Foley thought would be best for Haiti. The ambassador discussed the situation with Powell and told Aristide that his position was politically unsustainable and personally perilous. If Aristide waited until the rebels reached Port-au-Prince, Foley told him, the Bush administration could not guarantee his safe departure.
Aristide consulted with his wife and agreed to leave.
U.S. officials said they knew Aristide had already begun getting ready when he told Foley that he could not send him an e-mail message because his computer was packed.
It was after midnight when Foley called Moreno and asked him to drive to Tabarre to accompany Aristide and his American wife Mildred to the airport, where a jetliner chartered by the U.S. government would pick them up.
When Aristide greeted him at the house, Moreno said he asked the president for a resignation letter. He said Aristide did not give him the letter right away, but promised to give one to him before he was airborne.
“You have my word and you know my word is good,” Aristide said, according to Moreno.
Moreno said they then drove to the airport in separate vehicles. Aristide’s young children, who are U.S. citizens, had already been sent to the United States.
The caravan arrived at the airport and waited in the dark for the U.S. plane. When Moreno received word that the plane was about 20 minutes from landing, he said he walked over and tapped on the window of Aristide’s car.
“I need the letter,” he recalled telling the Haitian president. Aristide reached into his wife’s purse and handed him a letter written in Creole. Moreno said he passed it to a Creole-speaking embassy political officer, who confirmed that the document was indeed a letter of resignation.
“The Constitution should not drown in the blood of the Haitian people,” said the letter, signed by Aristide, according to a White House translation.
“That is why, if tonight it is my resignation that can avoid a bloodbath, I agree to leave with the hope that that there will be life and not death. Life for everyone. Death for no one.”
Moreno said he chatted with Aristide for the next few minutes. He said he reminded the president that he had been at the U.S. Embassy in 1994, when American military forces restored Aristide to power.
“I expressed sadness that I was here to watch him leave,” Moreno recalled. Aristide, answering in English, said, “Sometimes life is like that.”
“Then I shook his hand,” Moreno said, “and he went away.”
Aristide and his wife boarded the plane and left Haiti at about 6:15 a.m.
Wilson reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.