ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS ROGER F. NORIEGA
BY CHRIS BURY OF NIGHTLINE
March 1, 2004
(3:30 p.m. EST)
MR. BURY: Joining us now is Roger Noriega, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. I just got off the phone with Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She claims that she spoke to President Aristide this morning, and that he claimed he was taken against his will, and the words, according to Congresswoman Waters, Aristide said that he had been kidnapped.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, that’s, of course, nonsense. He approached our ambassador. He made the decision to resign. He chose the destination, and he could or could not have not decided for himself whether to get on that plane. Aristide has had his decade of deception, and we would have hoped that now he would put the interest in his people, first and foremost.
He did resign. It’s time to move forward. You know Haiti. You know Haitian people. You understand that these people can do a lot if you give them a chance, and they deserve that chance now.
MR. BURY: You said he made the decision. Did the United States Government give him a hard shove in that direction?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, I mean, the — what we’ve said — and it was very public, that he needed to consider his situation — whether he could govern effectively, honestly, in a non-violent way. He demonstrated in a very clear way in the final days by arming his thugs, by targeting innocent people, that he had no intention of, in these final days, governing effectively or honestly or more peacefully or responsibly. And I think he made his situation more and more untenable.
MR. BURY: Critics of the Administration say that the Administration, essentially, forced Aristide’s hand by refusing to back the peacekeeping force by refusing to send in the Marines early enough that by the time violence reigned, the situation had become untenable, and therefore Aristide was forced to leave.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, point of fact, the United States has for many, many years tried to help Aristide by — through international support, initially, under the Clinton Administration, by support for building up institutions. We, literally, put Aristide back in power. In 1991, when I was working for the U.S. Government, at that time, I was part of a policy that said that he had to be restored to power. We had to make a decision whether we were going to put American leaves at risk, knowing what we know about President Aristide and expect that he would be able to make the most of that opportunity to govern effectively and honestly, non-violently.
It’s clear that he — by virtue of saying now that he was kidnapped that he’s not a person that’s very reliable, and a 10-year track record demonstrates that this was not a good opportunity for putting American lives at stake to merely prop him up. We were prepared to support a political solution, but when that became clear that it was not going to be possible, we had to make a decision whether to do nothing when it comes to propping Aristide up, or do the wrong thing, which would have been putting American lives and counting on him making the most of this last opportunity.
MR. BURY: So you encouraged him to go?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: We asked him to do the thinking about his situation. At the very last moment, it was his decision. I found it rather remarkable that he decided to leave, and that throughout the evening on Saturday I wholly expected that he would change his mind because he has been proven to be erratic and unreliable. And by virtue of some of the statements that he is quoted as saying, assuming we can trust the interlocutors, he has proven, once again, that he’s not a reliable figure.
MR. BURY: At the same time, for all of his flaws, Aristide is democratically elected President, and there was a power-sharing agreement that you helped to negotiate. Why not enforce that with the help of U.S. Marines or forces, if necessary?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, we’ve done — we did that all before.
MR. BURY: You didn’t send the troops this time — on Aristide’s behalf?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: No, no, we certainly didn’t. It was a conscious decision not to do that. There was a good agreement that I went down to Haiti to try to sell to the opposition. But quite frankly, the level of distrust for President Aristide was so high that these people were unprepared to join in that process.
And quite frankly, the level of distrust for the international community by Haitians who believe that the international community has looked the other way, as Aristide has violated 10 years worth of commitments to respect human rights or to respect the rule law, 10 years of commitments to the international community to govern responsibly and honestly and non-violently. And so this has built up so much scar tissue, that it was not — was not possible to make that power-sharing arrangement stick.
MR. BURY: If the opposition is the one that was opposed to that power-sharing agreement, why then was Aristide held accountable for the failure of the opposition to go along?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, the power-sharing agreement and the last ditch effort on our part is part of a — of months of diplomacy, just recently, with the CARICOM effort and part of the years of diplomacy on our part to get Aristide to abide by his commitments to hold — to not use criminal gangs and thugs to govern, to respect the rule of law, respect human rights, honor his commitments to the international community.
So we had to make a judgment. If the opposition was unprepared to accompany this process, did we have some sort of obligation to put American lives at risk, to, once again, test Aristide’s ability to govern effectively?
We made the decision that — and — that that was not a good bet. As a matter of fact, if other countries wanted to put people in Haiti, they could have. But the key countries that looked at this decided that it was not really fair to ask people to put their lives at risk merely to prop up Aristide once again.
MR. BURY: Would you now accept President Aristide into the United States to live in exile, as he did once before?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, he has to make a judgment about that. I am not a consular officer. He does not have a valid visa to enter the United States.
MR. BURY: You seem to be saying he wouldn’t be welcome.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: I’m saying what I’m saying, which I am not a consular officer. I am not authorized to make any judgments about whether or not he would be eligible to come to the United States. His wife’s an American citizen so are his children, so they could certainly come here, and he’d have to apply like anyone else and — but he doesn’t have a valid visa to come to the United States at this point.
MR. BURY: You mentioned the thuggery on the part of Aristide supporters. Some of the rebels who are vying for power also have thuggery in their backgrounds. One of them is a former alleged leader of a death squad. What is the United States doing to prevent them from acquiring power or control?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well,. we have said that these people should lay down their arms. Some of them have been convicted of crimes, as I understand it, and they will eventually be held accountable, I assume, under Haitian law, by Haitian authorities. But they have no business staking a claim to power in Haiti. This is not a time for violence. It’s a time for democratic leadership to be given a chance, and these people should lay down their arms and go home. They have no part of this peaceful solution in Haiti.
MR. BURY: So what is the United States Government prepared to do about it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: We’ll use the American military to keep these folks from taking power in Haiti.
MR. BURY: The role of the American military is to give the best chance for a constitutional succession to take place and for the establishment of an independent government. And that’s the role of the military.
It also has its explicit specific roles in protecting the airport and port facilities that are used for repatriating people. But it will have a broader role under the UN Security Council resolution which was approved to create the conditions, at least in the capital city, for a succession process to take root, for democratic institutions to be established.
MR. BURY: Are you saying then that part of their job will be to screen out these folks with pretty unsavory reputations?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, they won’t be — at least, the U.S. military are not going to be a police force patrolling the streets of Haiti. The Haitian National Police has a role to play. They’re good, capable people, who were part of that police force before it was undermined by Aristide’s corruption and “politization.”
We expect that those good and honest Haitians will take up that role of serving as a police force in that country. And part of the mandate of the international community — and many countries are going to participate in this process — will be to strengthen that institution so that Haitians can do their own police work.
MR. BURY: How long do you foresee American military having a presence in Haiti?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: It will be a fairly brief presence.
MR. BURY: Weeks, months?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: The resolution calls, I believe, for a three-month presence and no more than a three-month presence. But what we found very heartening in our contacts with the international community, there are a good number of countries from this hemisphere and outside this hemisphere that are prepared to put forces on the ground and to stay for a period of years, as part of the UN mandated mission.
The United States doesn’t have to play that role. There are others that are willing to do so. We’ll do our part through our regular aid program, through technical assistance, particularly, with the Haitian National Police and with the government institutions. So we’ll do our part, by all means.
MR. BURY: Given the chronic instability of Haiti and the numerous American military interventions over many years, what gives you any hope that this time is going to be any better, any different?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Mm-hmm. Well, of course, you can’t guarantee. But my hope is based on an appreciation, a fondness, really, for the Haitian people. Those of us who know Haitians, who live outside of Haiti, we know that they’re industrious, very bright, clever, capable people. If we give them half a chance in Haiti, I’m confident that they will be able to establish a strong country and a health society.
Please don’t judge the Haitian people by the last 10 years, because I think, unfortunately, that last 10 years was all about Aristide. It was all about making apologies for his mistakes, excuses for his violations, and compensating, accommodating his pathological behavior, quite frankly.
He’s not a typical Haitian, thank God, and I think that we can work with the Haitian people and accompany them in building a more just society. But the mistakes that we have made within the 10 years, particularly in the mid-90s, where we squandered an opportunity to really help Haiti, we’re all about compensating for Aristide’s failures, apologizing for them, accepting them.
And now that’s a part of the past, and he’s having his last shot on the way out the door. And I think it’s very sad because it could cause unnecessary violence and misunderstandings in Haiti in a very delicate period of time. But this is, hopefully, his last shot, and now the other 8 million people of Haiti will have a shot in making a better future.
MR. BURY: Excuse me. The main criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus and others is that by handing the situation this way, the Bush Administration has undermined democracy. It’s undermined its democratically elected leader.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Well, first off, I hesitate to refer to all of these people as a block, the Congressional Black Caucus, they don’t all act alike, as far as I’m concerned. Several of them know Haiti very, very well; some of them supported Aristide, initially, and now they have grave doubts. Their concerns are that we didn’t send the troops in —
MR. BURY: Early enough?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: — to bail out Aristide. We sent troops in pretty darn quickly, once it became clear that that would be as part of a sustainable political solution.
President Aristide has demonstrated — and I refer to 10 years because there was a period of time where he wouldn’t have real power from behind the scenes — has demonstrated that he is not a responsible interlocutor, that he’s demonstrated in the last few hours that he’s not a reliable person.
We’ve provided him an exit, a humanitarian service, really. It was, more or less, a service to the Haitian people, and his response has been to accuse us of violating his rights. And it’s very irresponsible. Again, that time is over.
We, the United States, has an obligation — have an obligation, I believe, to respect constitutional order, but we do not have to do that in a blind way. The fact that Aristide is a constitutional President — elected, there is a question about that — but a constitutional President, there is no doubt. That’s one fact, that it does not — is not a fact that relieves us of making other value judgments about Haiti and about Aristide.
The fact is he governed very irresponsibly, violently, until the very last minute, and it was a judgment that it was not an effective, viable use of American military forces to put someone into Haiti just to prop up Aristide. (Inaudible), a 10 year track record proved that it was not a viable, effective use of that very precious resource.
MR. BURY: Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Thank you very much.