Global Policy Forum

Exhuming Failed Prosecutions: Washington Renews its Campaign Against Aristide

This article from Haitian weekly Haïti Liberté details the US governments’ ongoing efforts to neutralize Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a political force. The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks seem to confirm this analysis of events, as they repeatedly make oblique reference to the various tactics used to undermine Haitian democracy. The most recent of these tactics is an attempt to arrest Aristide on charges of corruption, at once providing an excuse to detain him, and an opportunity to smear his name. However, this legal attack on Aristide has been foreshadowed in the Wikileaks cables, and the attack could have the opposite effect  - further confirming the US government’s fundamentally imperial approach to Haiti in the eyes of Haitians and informed observers. 

By Kim Ives

Haïti Liberté
March 27, 2012 

Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide “is once again in the crosshairs of the U.S. government,” reported the Miami Herald on Mar. 3, “this time for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from Miami businesses that brokered long-distance phone deals” with TELECO, the once state-owned phone company. (TELECO was privatized in 2010.)

The Herald’s writers got a little carried away. They were working from a U.S. indictment charging that a certain Haitian “Official B” – whom the Herald and a defense lawyer deduce, but cannot confirm, is Aristide – made off with about $1 million, not “millions.

But the whole story stinks to high heaven. Aristide’s accuser is one of those indicted, Patrick Joseph, 50, TELECO’s former director. Aristide fired him in 2003 for corruption, a key fact never mentioned in any of the Herald’s reports. Is it surprising that Joseph or his lawyer might now accuse Aristide as an accomplice, especially given the incentives U.S. prosecutors are surely offering him?

Washington’s campaign to pin something – anything – on Aristide has long been known. About 2000 secret U.S. State Department cables obtained by the media organization WikiLeaks and then provided to Haïti Liberté provide one of the best confirmations of the U.S. witch-hunt.

Some of the cables, not previously published by Haïti Liberté, show that in recent years the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Technical Assistance (OTA) gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding as well as “monthly training and technical assistance” (according to a Jul. 25, 2008 cable) to Haitian agencies like the Central Unit for Financial Investigation (UCREF). Prime Minister Gérard Latortue’s de facto government formed UCREF to find evidence of and make a case for corruption under Aristide’s government, which was overthrown in a Feb. 29, 2004 coup d’état supported by Washington.

A Jan. 17, 2008 cable notes that the OTA trained UCREF in a program costing the U.S. taxpayer $350,000 over two years “to improve investigation and prosecution of financial crimes,” i.e. to find something on Aristide.

Despite such U.S. support, UCREF could never build a credible case. Even a civil suit based on UCREF’s 69-page report against Aristide, brought in a Miami court in November 2005, was abandoned by the lawyers filing it after a few months when they saw that it was going nowhere. Why? Because there was no evidence.

Ironically, UCREF’s chief, Jean-Yves Noel, was himself briefly jailed by a Haitian judge for kidnapping. He gave a “a rambling, emotional and sometimes confusing account” of his arrest to U.S. Embassy officials and “Treasury investigators,” reported U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson in a Jun. 1, 2006 cable marked “Confidential.

Noel claimed there were two attempts to assassinate him while he was imprisoned from May 22-29, 2006.

Noel’s story should not necessarily be taken at face value,” Sanderson opined. “His cooperation with USG [U.S. Government] investigators, always spotty at best, deteriorated severely over the past 6 months for a variety of reasons that arouse our suspicions. Many claim that Noel is corrupt and his arrest was payback for past corruption.

Undeterred, Sanderson recommended that “We need to be careful to separate Jean-Yves Noel, the individual, from the work of UCREF, the institution,” arguing that “we need to continue to support the work of the fledgling anti-corruption office” even though “corruption is entrenched in Haitian society and political interference the norm.” Of course, Sanderson was not referring to the political interference of her own embassy.

On the evening of Mar. 6, 2012, two days after the Herald’s story, gunmen on two motorcycles fatally shot in the mouth Venel Joseph, 80, as he was returning to his home in Port-au-Prince. He was the father of Patrick Joseph and, under Aristide from 2001 to 2004, had been the director of Haiti’s Central Bank, which the indictment alleges distributed the bribes paid by the U.S.-based telecoms.

The Miami Herald and the Wall Street Journal, historically the two principal vectors of Washington’s version of events in Haiti, immediately implied that Aristide was behind the killing.

The shooting of Venel Joseph at the wheel of his car looks more like a hit job,” wrote Mary Anastasia O'Grady, for years the Wall Street Journal’s point-person for attacks on Aristide. Since Patrick Joseph “according to Herald sources, has fingered” Aristide, O’Grady reasons, he “could be the best hope that Haitians have of getting to the truth about Mr. Aristide and his American business partners. But sources say the former Teleco executive still has relatives in Haiti. If he fears for them, he could clam up. That would be one explanation for his father's murder.

But Aristide’s long-time lawyer Ira Kurzban took another view. “To me, Venel Joseph’s killing bears all the markings of a U.S. intelligence community hit,” he said. “First, they eliminate someone who might contradict and discredit the charges of corruption against former President Aristide presently being attributed to his son, Patrick Joseph. Secondly, they smear Aristide, trying to make it look like he’s behind it. Lastly, the killing might push Patrick Joseph to make other allegations against Aristide in a desire to avenge his father.

In 2003, Aristide moved forcefully against Patrick Joseph when he got wind of corruption at TELECO. “We are fighting corruption,” Aristide declared when he made a surprise visit to TELECO’s Port-au-Prince headquarters on Jun. 19, 2003. “Nobody at TELECO would be happy to be laboring away while they see other people bathing in corruption. And that is why, we are fighting corruption in TELECO and in the state as a whole. And if there are private individuals who are bathing in corruption and who want to corrupt people in TELECO, that also is no good.

Four days later, on Jun. 23, 2003, Patrick Joseph was dismissed from his post. Rather than applaud Aristide’s moves against corruption at TELECO, the U.S. seeks to portray Aristide as behind it. Meanwhile, Joseph has confessed to taking kickbacks.

In the end, there is not a shred of evidence in the indictment that Aristide did anything corrupt except uncorroborated testimony of a person who is an admitted corrupter and criminal,” Ira Kurzban concluded.

The campaign to prosecute Aristide for corruption, in an attempt to politically neutralize him, has been going on for years. In a Jul. 25, 2008 Embassy cable, Chargé d’affaires Thomas Tighe wrote that the OTA wanted then President René Préval’s “cooperation with the USG in moving cases involving telecommunications companies with reported ties to Aristide to prosecution in the United States,” and that the “OTA team advised Préval that a criminal case is close to indictment in the U.S. but U.S. prosecutors were requesting Teleco officials' immediate assistance in providing certain documentation.” But now, almost four years later, the U.S. prosecutors still have no documentation or other evidence, only the testimony of Patrick Joseph.

The US government has spent millions, possibly tens of millions, of dollars trying to railroad Haiti's former president,” wrote Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research in the Guardian on Mar. 13. “On behalf of US taxpayers, we could use a congressional inquiry into this abuse of our tax dollars. It also erodes what we have left of an independent judiciary to have federal courts in Florida used as an instrument of foreign policy skullduggery.

Thousands marched in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 29, the coup’s anniversary, cheering Aristide and lambasting Haiti’s current neo-Duvalierist president Michel Martelly.

The display of popular support for Aristide is very worrisome to the U.S., so indicting Titid [Aristide] before a potential comeback makes perfect sense,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born professor at the University of Virginia who has written several books on Haiti, to the Miami Herald.

As Weisbrot then notes, “It makes even more sense if you look at what the US government – in collaboration with UN officials and other allies – has been doing to Aristide since they organized the 2004 coup against him.” For example, Edmund Mulet, the head of the UN’s military occupation force called MINUSTAH, had advice for Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon in a Jul. 25, 2006 meeting in Port-au-Prince, an Aug. 2, 2006 WikiLeaked cable reveals. Among other things, Mulet "urged US legal action against Aristide to prevent the former president from gaining more traction with the Haitian population.” That “legal action” is what we’re seeing today.

Although Aristide has studiously maintained a low profile since his return to Haiti last Mar. 18 from a seven-year Washington-enforced exile in South Africa, he remains a political symbol that stirs the passions and courage of Haiti’s masses. Washington’s clumsy and transparent attempts to discredit him have always served to only increase his appeal, not diminish it.

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