Haiti’s Clinton Problem

During his term, Bill Clinton used violent and underhanded tactics to promote US interests in Haiti.

Bill Clinton in Port au Prince, Haiti in 2010. US Air Force / Flickr

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s election in 1990 had been seen as an encouraging harbinger of a new relatively more peaceful and democratic era in Haitian politics. Aristide was a liberation theologian and orphanage proprietor who had spent years preaching about the wellbeing of the poor, sick, and hungry.

After the country had survived multiple decades ruled by the Duvaliers père and fils (a pair of murderous grifters who financed their upscale dictator-chic lifestyles by trafficking in the body parts of dead Haitians), the frugal curate Aristide was a welcome relief.

The peace did not last. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup d’etat the next year, and the country collapsed into disarray. The new military government swiftly introduced the usual program of arrests, tortures, and mysterious disappearances, with all opposition subject to terror and suppression. Faced with violence and economic collapse, hundreds of refugees began to flee the country in tiny boats, bound for US shores.

United States law allows political refugees to apply for asylum if they have a “well-founded fear” of political persecution, which plainly the Haitians did. But the George H. W. Bush administration refused to let the Haitians go through the asylum process. Instead, it followed a formal policy of simply dispatching the Coast Guard to scoop the fleeing Haitians from the water, then immediately sending them back to Haiti.

The Bush policy was condemned by human rights groups; after all, the entire purpose of political asylum is to ensure that people are not being returned to countries where their lives are in danger, yet the US government was openly sending thousands of Haitians back to a country where their lives were in danger. It was also seen as discriminatory, even racist; refugees from Cuba were routinely granted asylum, but Haitians were not. (Of nearly twenty-five thousand Haitians interdicted by the United States from 1981–1991, only eleven were allowed into the country to be given asylum hearings.) The brazen inhumanity of the administration’s actions shocked many, and throughout his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton had pledged unequivocally that he would end the policy immediately upon taking office, criticizing the practice as “cruel” and “immoral.” Clinton said that by contrast to Bush:

If I were president, I would — in the absence of clear and compelling evidence that they weren’t political refugees — give them temporary asylum until we restored the elected Government of Haiti.

The promise was an unusually forceful one for Clinton; it was markedly free of his usual qualifications and hedges. There was no real argument that the refugees were political. They were fleeing a military dictatorship. The granting of political asylum would also be within the president’s powers; there was no obvious legal impediment to his carrying out the promise.

But shortly after being elected, before he had even taken office, Clinton reversed himself. In what the New York Times called a “bluntly worded” radio address, Clinton announced that:

The practice of returning those who flee Haiti by boat will continue, for the time being, after I become president . . . Those who leave Haiti by boat for the United States will be intercepted and returned to Haiti by the US Coast Guard.

Asked about the switch, Clinton said his “campaign rhetoric had been sorely misunderstood.” Clinton maintained that “people who didn’t qualify as refugees still shouldn’t be here,” and the Haitians were fleeing for “economic” rather than “political” reasons, and thus didn’t qualify as refugees.

This was news to the Haitians, who had thought they were fleeing political violence. It also angered human rights advocates, who had believed Clinton’s word that he would end the Bush policy. The head of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees emphasized that “[t]he policy violates the most basic tenet of refugee protection. People at least deserve to be heard to demonstrate a fear of persecution before they are returned.”

The reversal also alienated black Democrats, who had relied on Clinton to show more respect for the rights of poor black refugees than Bush had. Kweisi Mfume, then head of the Congressional Black Caucus, later recounted his anger at Clinton over the blatant abandonment of his promise:

Black people all across this country gravitated to Clinton’s message because he was moving beyond Bush’s inhumane policy, which turned a blind eye to conditions in Haiti — men being tortured and maimed, women being raped, and the bodies of children found washed up on the shore. Yet in Clinton’s first week in office, he announced he would continue to maintain the Bush policy of repatriation, mumbling some kind of poor excuse for his decision.

Mfume said that in his opinion, “Clinton could not have done such a thing without taking the black vote and the Caucus for granted.”

The reasons for Clinton’s change of mind were never made public, but the New York Times suggested one explanation, reporting that “[m]embers of Mr. Clinton’s foreign-policy team have expressed concern that celebrations surrounding Mr. Clinton’s inauguration, which will be widely televised, will be marred by news footage of Haitian boat people drowning . . .” Naturally, who would wish to see such celebrations marred?

The forced repatriation policy was not the only way in which the United States violated the Haitians’ rights, however. As disagreements over the refugees’ status had gone through the courts, the Bush administration had begun a policy of storing refugees awaiting transfer at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba. Because Guantanamo was not US soil, detaining people was thought to avoid the triggering of legal procedural protections that may have been granted to those who were actually being held in the country.

Bill Clinton continued the Bush policy of keeping refugees at Guantanamo indefinitely. But Clinton introduced a new policy as well: testing the Haitians for HIV, and segregating those who tested positive. In doing so, he created “the world’s first HIV detention camp.”

Conditions in the HIV camp were horrific. The facility was a “leaky barracks with poor sanitation, surrounded by razor wire and guard towers,” and numerous detainees were housed in tents. Many of the refugees were gravely ill with AIDS, and the crowded facility was characterized by fear, squalor, and uncertainty.

After being held for more than a year, some of the refugees began a hunger strike. (The military retaliated by putting the leader of the hunger strike in solitary confinement.) Communications home had to be smuggled out. As one refugee wrote in a letter to her family, “I have lost in the struggle for life . . . There is nothing left for me. Take care of my children, so they have strength to continue my struggle . . . I have lost hope. I am alone in my distress.” Another recalled:

We had been asking them to remove the barbed wire; the children were playing near it, they were falling and injuring themselves. The food they were serving us, including canned chicken, had maggots in it. And yet they insisted that we eat it. Because you’ve got no choice. And it was for these reasons that we started holding demonstrations. In response, they began to beat us. On July 18, they surrounded us, arrested some of us, and put us in prison, in Camp Number 7 . .&nbsp. Camp 7 was a little space on a hill. They put up a tent, but when it rained, you got wet. The sun came up, we were baking in it. We slept on the rocks; there were no beds. And each little space was separated by barbed wire. We couldn’t even turn around without being injured by the barbed wire.

In the tiny, cramped cells, “there was no privacy. Snakes would come in; we were lying on the ground and lizards were climbing over us. One of us was bitten by a scorpion . .&nbsp. there were spiders. Bees were stinging the children, and there were flies everywhere: whenever you tried to eat something, flies would fly in your mouth.”

The military doctors began giving women birth control without the women’s knowledge or consent. Yet at the same time the Clinton administration refused to provide the AIDS-infected refugees with lifesaving medical care, which almost certainly hastened their deaths. The US military had recommended that the sickest refugees be airlifted to hospitals within the United States for treatment. But the administration, not wishing to let any of the Haitians onto US soil, refused. As a result, there were “a huge number of unnecessary early deaths.” When asked why they were refusing to provide medical treatment, a spokesman for Clinton’s Immigration and Naturalization Service said bluntly: “They’re going to die anyway, aren’t they?”

Eventually, after human rights lawyers filed suit, the federal courts stepped in to put a stop to Clinton’s actions. A federal judge called the treatment “outrageous, callous, and reprehensible” and criticized Clinton for imposing on refugees “the kind of indefinite detention usually reserved for spies and murderers . .&nbsp. The Haitians’ plight is a tragedy of immense proportion, and their continued detainment is totally unacceptable to this court.”

Thanks to judicial intervention, then, the HIV camp was finally closed. But for some, the court order did not come soon enough. A detainee named Joel

died just days after he was freed from the camp, at the age of twenty-six. For months, human rights attorneys had begged the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to send Saintil and other gravely ill Haitians for treatment in the United States, but the agency had refused until a federal district court judge ordered the sickest released. Saintil was flown to his father’s house in Florida, but it was already too late. He became one of the camp’s first casualties.

Even for the survivors, the nearly two years spent in Clinton’s detention camp had lasting psychological effects:

Annette Baptiste still cries when she thinks about what the United States did to her ten years ago on its Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Sitting in her Brooklyn apartment, she recalls how the United States detained her and 276 fellow Haitians in the Alcatraz of refugee camps, imprisoning them for some eighteen months simply because they, or their loved ones, had HIV. “I relive Guantanamo every day,” she says in Creole. “It’s all in my head.” Guantanamo is also in Pierre Avril’s head, say the friends who looked after him in the United States. Avril was just fourteen when he arrived at Guantanamo, and the trauma of the experience — the fear, the uncertainty, the stigma — left permanent damage. Today he is once again in detention, this time in a psychiatric correctional facility in upstate New York.

Even after action by the courts stopped the Clinton policy, the administration was still reluctant to process refugee claims from Haitians. When President Aristide was finally returned to power, and Clinton’s government announced that the refugees would finally be freed from detention, the administration was sure to declare that “under no circumstances will any Haitian currently at Guantanamo be admitted to the United States.”

Freeing the detainees had not come easily, because Clinton fiercely defended his government’s right to indefinitely imprison Haitians. In doing so, he “helped pave the way for” the future justifications for indefinite detention at Guantanamo made by his successor, George W. Bush.

But the court decisions surrounding the Haitian refugee crisis would not come up during the debate over Bush’s detention practices. Clinton administration lawyers had fought to have the decisions questioning the legality of detention removed from the books, and the case would disappear.


Clinton’s record on Haiti did not get better. While the administration publicly opposed the removal of President Aristide, it covertly supported the right-wing death squads that had supported the coup. The leader of the brutal Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), Emmanuel Constant, had been on the CIA’s payroll for years. American officials admitted to both working with him and encouraging him to form FRAPH in the first place.

US intelligence called him “a young pro-Western intellectual . . . no farther right than a Young Republican” even though his organization was, as sociologist William Robinson explains, a “well-organized instrument of repression, operating in a death-squad manner to continue the process of decimating popular sector organization” and “bent on preserving an authoritarian political system.” The organization “carried out much of the reign of terror that led to the killing of more than three thousand Haitian civilians in three years” and “shot into pro-democracy crowds celebrating Aristide’s planned return, killing eight people and wounding many others.”

Despite this string of atrocities, the United States continued to provide support to Constant and the FRAPH, some of which was more overt than covert. The Los Angeles Times reported on one of Constant’s speaking events:

Constant appeared on a public podium with a sound system, allegedly supplied by the US Embassy, flanked by a row of US soldiers to protect him from a seething crowd. He then read a speech, reportedly drafted by US Embassy officials, that cast him as a democrat ready to help heal the wounds of the nation.

When the United States restored President Aristide to power, Constant was sheltered on US soil, despite Haiti’s pleas that Constant be deported and tried for war crimes in his home country. At first, Constant was held in detention, and was ordered deported by a judge. But after Constant threatened to publicly expose the CIA’s links to his organization, “the Clinton administration released him into the United States rather than return him to Haiti, provided him with a work permit, and required that he abide by a gag order.”

The Clinton administration attempted to cover up its involvement with FRAPH after Aristide’s restoration. When FRAPH massacred pro-Aristide protesters, the United States raided and destroyed FRAPH headquarters. In the process, it seized FRAPH’s internal documents and brought them back to the United States. The administration refused to accede to Aristide’s request for the return of the documents, which Human Rights Watch said contained “intact evidence of death-squad crimes.”

The withholding of the documents was reportedly an effort to keep the CIA’s links with the FRAPH a secret; the New York Times cited the Clinton administration’s “implicit fear that some documents might mention American intelligence links to members of the discredited former Government that ousted Mr. Aristide in a military coup in 1991.” The US’s refusal was condemned by the United Nations’s independent human rights envoy to Haiti, who said he believed that “the US administration is trying to cover up some of its wrongdoing in that period.”

The US’s support of FRAPH made for an apparent irony. Allan Nairn, a journalist for the Nation who won a Polk Award for his reporting on Haiti and the CIA, said that “many of the officials whom Clinton was claiming to be fighting were actually his employees.” Nairn observed that if “Clinton had simply cut them off, completely ended their support, the Haitian public itself most likely could have brought down the coup regime without a US occupation.” Even as the United States professed itself flummoxed as to how to restore Haiti’s democratically elected government, it continued to encourage the very forces that were preventing the restoration of that government.

Some were puzzled by “a contradictory US policy that publicly supports Aristide as ‘the people’s choice’ while privately grooming those who ardently oppose him.” After all, Clinton went so far as to invade Haiti in order to restore Aristide to power, so wasn’t covert support for the right-wing opposition somewhere between pointless and disastrous?

It was not. As Emmanuel Constant himself explained, the United States asked him to “balance” Aristide’s leftist movement, a task he took to with violent enthusiasm. By supporting the FRAPH, the United States increased its bargaining power in negotiations with Aristide. Returning Aristide to power was conditional on his agreeing to an austerity and privatization program, and through ensuring that Haiti remained divided between competing factions, the Clinton administration was able to ensure that Aristide would be compliant while in office, and not attempt to implement the radical redistributionist economic policies that the IMF and United States feared.

So Aristide was returned to office, but agreed to an austerity program that prevented him from taking Haiti in a social-democratic direction. The plan worked, and the Clinton administration got what it wanted from Haiti.