Originally: Gary Pierre-Pierre, Representative Barbara Lee and Timothy Carney discuss the situation in Haiti

Interview: Gary Pierre-Pierre, Representative Barbara Lee and Timothy Carney discuss the situation in Haiti

February 19, 2004

TAVIS SMILEY, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley.

On today’s program, we’ll talk about what African-Americans endured as they migrated to the north during World War I. Also, our regular commentator, Michael Eric Dyson, has some words about that student-led scholarship drive for white applicants only, and she’s star of R&B, jazz and the stage–our conversation with the incomparable Freda Payne comes up later in this program.

But first, Haiti on the brink of humanitarian disaster. That’s how many are referring to the violent uprising in that Caribbean nation of eight million. Still, the US maintains it will not play a definitive role in the ongoing crisis, but Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the US will not accept the ousting of Haiti’s government by what he called `thugs and murderers.’ On the line with more on this story is journalist Gary Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times of New York.

Gary, nice to have you back.

Mr. GARY PIERRE-PIERRE (Editor, Haitian Times of New York): Thank you, Tavis.

SMILEY: Give us a general sense right now of what’s going on in Haiti.

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Well, it’s been pure chaos for the last two weeks or so. You have the rebels moving north, having cut off the second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, to any sort of commercial traffic.

SMILEY: As we mentioned, Gary, the role that the US will be playing or not playing, as it were, is very limited. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has appealed for international help to end this rebellion. Tell me why the US is opting not to take a more active role at this point.

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Well, I think for the last four years or so, the US has not thought much about Haiti. Secretary Powell’s comments were not very sharp and they were somewhat contradictory, according to some political analysts who are familiar with Haiti. And if you look at it, we’ve been preoccupied with the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, and Haiti wasn’t a priority. No one thought that this problem that you and I have talked about on this show many times in the last three months or so would have erupted this far, so everyone was caught off guard. So right now I think the administration is trying to formulate some kind of policy to decide what to do. But right now, I think it’s not really clear what the US is going to do.

SMILEY: How has the rest of the international community weighed in, or not?

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Well, France has said that it will be able and willing to help. Canada said it would send maybe 100 police officers, and there’s some pressure on Brazil, of all places, to step in and try to mediate, because Brazil being the biggest country in the Southern Hemisphere, and trying to mediate.

SMILEY: How do you think a potential US role here would affect a political shakeup in Haiti?

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Well, the US, obviously, for over 100 years or so has been the major influence peddler in Haiti, and you have people like me in the United States, you have a large Haitian-American community, sometimes putting pressure on the US. Inevitably, Tavis, the US is going to act. The question is how. I think…

SMILEY: Right.

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: …one other question is if we do intervene this time, we need to do it right. I mean, last time, we came in, and we did a little patchwork, and we claimed victory when we left. Fact of the matter is, there was a lot of institution-building that needed to take place and really was caught up short.

SMILEY: Finally, is the US, as you see it, standing by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide or refusing to get involved at the moment? Those are two very different things.

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Yes, exactly. That’s a very astute point, Tavis. I think, I mean, they’re just looking by. I don’t think the US likes Aristide very much; I mean, especially the Bush administration. Bush 41 never did, and 43, because a lot of the same people in his administration who were a part of Bush 41, and so there’s no love for Aristide in Washington right now. The problem is, and that everyone is facing, is that the opposition is not credible enough to throw support behind them, and right now, Tavis, what you have happening is a remnant of FRAPH, some of the real right-wing reactionary forces that really destabilized the country are back. I mean, this is not a rebel force. Right now you have real soldiers from the disbanded army taking up arms in the north of the country. So this is really a bad sign.

SMILEY: Journalist Gary Pierre-Pierre is the editor of the influential Haitian Times of New York.

Gary, as always, thanks for coming on. I appreciate your insight.

Mr. PIERRE-PIERRE: Any time, Tavis. Thank you.

SMILEY: My pleasure.

The political debate over Haiti has quickly intensified among party lawmakers. Some Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are imploring the Bush administration to take stronger action. Joining us now is CBC member Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat of California. She is a member of the House International Relations Committee and co-chair of the Haiti Task Force.

Congresswoman, nice to have you on.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Good to be with you, Tavis.

SMILEY: Also with us is the former US ambassador to Haiti, from 1998 to ’99, Timothy Carney. Ambassador Carney is currently a member of the advisory board of the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington.

Ambassador, nice to have you on as well.

Mr. TIMOTHY CARNEY (Former US Ambassador to Haiti): Pleasure to be with you.

SMILEY: Congresswoman, let me start with you. I understand the CBC sent a letter to President Bush yesterday about this issue. What did you send, and what did you say?

Rep. LEE: OK. Well, Tavis, first of all, let me say that, yes, the CBC has been very focused on Haiti in the last several years, even though the administration has been focused more on Iraq and the war against Iraq. But having said that, let me just say that what’s going on in Haiti right now is deplorable, and the death and the violence that’s taking place, they have got to stop. And so the Congressional Black Caucus, under the chairmanship of Congressman Elijah Cummings, communicated to the president that we must take action immediately to help preserve democracy and to protect human life, and we’re asking the US to pull together an urgent meeting and a dialogue to really talk about the framework by which we can stop this effort, because it is quickly spiraling down into further turmoil. We believe that there should be an immediate cease-fire, respect for democracy, and adherence to the Haitian constitution to restore the rule of order.


Rep. LEE: I have spoken with Secretary Powell myself, personally have communicated with him, and they know. I mean, the administration knows that the Black Caucus stands firmly behind, for example, the TERACOM(ph) effort to ensure a cease-fire, and that we in no way want to see our government just stand by and watch people dying, people get killed in Haiti.

SMILEY: Ambassador Carney, what strikes you most about this current crisis and the role the US has taken or not taken, as it were, so far?

Mr. CARNEY: The nub of the whole thing is the political problem. It’s how do you deal with the reality that the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is of a legitimacy that has been tattered by his own extra-constitutional actions and specifically by his intolerance of opposition.

And this is further compounded because the opposition itself is split. We see on the one hand an armed opposition, which as Gary Pierre-Pierre correctly points out, includes some very unsavory elements, and we have a political opposition in two parts, the Group of 184 and the Democratic Platform, which has not shown a clear leadership, a clear potential to deal with Haiti.

This all boils down to the question of how to devise political benchmarks and to enforce agreements once we bring President Aristide and the opposition to the table.

SMILEY: Let me ask you whether or not you think that this crisis can be rectified, resolved or perhaps endured as long as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is in office. Can he finish these two years left on this term, or should he step down?

Mr. CARNEY: My personal view is that it is now time for President Aristide to look at his legacy to Haiti, to see if he can make the decisions, including changing his own role, that would bring Haiti into the 21st century, with a new political style, an end to the old predatory, intolerant style of the past 200 years and to move Haiti forward out of that.

SMILEY: I guess the question, Congresswoman Lee…

Rep. LEE: Tavis, can I just say something with regard to that?


Rep. LEE: Haiti has a constitution. President Aristide was duly elected. Whatever one thinks about President Aristide, I think the US should be very supportive in terms of the process that allows for free and fair elections. This is a democratically elected government, a democratically elected president, and anything short of opposing a call for the ouster is unacceptable.

SMILEY: Let me…

Rep. LEE: We stand on the side of upholding democracy.

SMILEY: Let me ask Ambassador Carney, how do you juxtapose that? How do you juxtapose your own personal view that he ought to consider his legacy and perhaps a new style and perhaps stepping aside with his being democratically elected? We wouldn’t ask anybody here to step down who’d been democratically and duly elected, Ambassador.

Mr. CARNEY: Well, I believe Richard Nixon did so, as a matter of fact. I’m not sure that the argument is relevant, because in terms of the constitution, the president can certainly make the decision to withdraw from office. He would have to do so, obviously, of his own will, and looking and analyzing the circumstances. I’m a little cautious, though, in viewing him as duly elected. If you look at the year 2000, at the fraud of the parliamentary elections of May 2000 which led to a boycott of the presidential elections, I would view his legitimacy as somewhat tattered.

Rep. LEE: Tavis, let me just say with regard to the elections, I think we must be clear that these elections about seven senate seats out of 7,500 that were held, President Aristide, once he was elected and got in and made sure that the seven senators stepped down, that should have really ended the controversy. And furthermore, when you look at elections, you look at elections in our own country. Come on. Elections weren’t perfect in America and have never been perfect. But the bottom line is President Aristide was elected, the United States has not provided the type of development and humanitarian assistance that it should have. We had to fight like crazy just to get $148 million in pre-negotiated loans that were negotiated three or four years ago released through the IDB. I mean, these are efforts we’ve been mounting with the Congressional Black Caucus for years. So believe me, President Aristide, in terms of the United States policy toward his government, it has not been extremely forthright and…


Rep. LEE: …forthcoming in terms of what we should have done to support the development process and democracy in Haiti.

SMILEY: I’ll have to leave it right there. Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California is a member of the House International Relations Committee, and Timothy Carney was the US ambassador to Haiti from 1998 to 1999.

Thank you both for coming on. I appreciate your insight.

Mr. CARNEY: You’re welcome.

Rep. LEE: Good talking with you.

SMILEY: It’s my pleasure.