Canada Strongly Supported Haiti’s 2004 Coup d’État

Twenty years ago today, Canada played a key role in Haiti’s 2004 coup. This foreign intervention led to the forceful removal of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, marking the country’s spiral into chaos.

Coup-ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide answering questions from press outside the White House in Washington, DC, on October 4, 1991. (Dirck Halstead / Getty Images)

Twenty years ago today, Canada played a key role in overthrowing the president of Haiti and thousands of other elected officials, significantly increasing foreign influence and triggering the country’s ongoing downward spiral. On February 29, 2004, Canadian special forces took control of the airport, facilitating US Marines’ removal of elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom they forced onto a plane bound for the Central African Republic, an action Aristide described as “kidnapping.” Immediately following Aristide’s removal, five hundred Canadian troops were dispatched to patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince.

The ouster of a leader, whose policies of redistribution angered a small, predominantly light-skinned elite who controlled the economy, marked the peak of a destabilization campaign led by the United States and supported by Ottawa. This campaign included military and paramilitary interventions, initiatives to create a compliant civil society, and an aid embargo aimed at crippling Haiti’s economy.

Additionally, it featured a full-scale disinformation campaign waged by Haitian elite-owned and international corporate media, alongside concerted diplomatic efforts to ensure the international community accepted the regime change and the public found it credible. Ottawa’s role in overthrowing Haiti’s most popular government is a critical example of Canada’s role in subverting democracy around the globe, as discussed in the book I coauthored with Owen Schalk and Rob Rolfe, Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy.

Vilifying a Popular Victory

Incredibly, the 2004 coup against Aristide began with an effort to discredit elections he neither participated in nor oversaw. In the May 2000 legislative and municipal elections, Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas won more than 70 percent of the vote. The party took an unprecedented eighty-nine of one hundred fifteen mayoral positions, seventy-two of eighty-three seats in the Chamber of Deputies and eighteen of nineteen Senate seats.

Immediately afterward, Organization of American States (OAS) observers called the elections “a great success for the Haitian population, which turned out in large and orderly numbers to choose both their local and national governments.” According to the OAS, 60 percent of registered voters went to the polls and there were “very few” incidents of either fraud or violence.

In response to its crushing defeat, the opposition accused the electoral commission of organizing a “massive fraud.” Recognizing the slim chance of defeating Fanmi Lavalas at the ballot box, the United States and Canadian-dominated OAS Electoral Observation Mission validated the opposition’s protests. The OAS challenged the calculation of majorities in some Senate seats, claiming Lavalas should have only won seven senate seats in the first round, not the sixteen announced by the electoral council.

The electoral council calculated the 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round victory by calculating the percentages of the top four candidates. The OAS contended that the count should include all candidates, but this was a disingenuous stance — the OAS worked with the electoral council to prepare the elections and were aware of the counting method beforehand. They had not objected to this procedure in any elections prior to Lavalas’s landslide victory. Additionally, OAS’s suggested tabulation method likely wouldn’t have altered the Senate seat outcome.

Essentially, the OAS seized on a technicality in the counting of some Senate seats to characterize an election for seven thousand positions as “deeply flawed.”

The Canadian government significantly influenced the OAS electoral mission, contributing more than Can$300,000. Beyond the OAS framework, Ottawa also backed the opposition’s call for an election review. Canada and the United States threatened to cut off assistance to the country to protest the formula used to determine the winners of the Senate seats. In September 2000, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright convened a meeting of “the friends of Haiti.” The meeting resulted in a US declaration that they would withdraw assistance for Haiti’s November presidential election. Ottawa also decided not to finance or participate in the Observation Mission to the presidential election.

Polls predicted a landslide victory for Aristide who, in 1990, had won Haiti’s first ever democratic election only to be ousted by the military eight months later. Unsurprisingly, Aristide won the election of November 2000 with 92 percent of the vote. Though most of the opposition parties boycotted the election, no analyst seriously doubted Aristide’s overwhelming popularity.

Given Aristide’s victory, the international community had little choice but to recognize him as legitimately elected. In Damming the Flood, Peter Hallward describes how at Aristide’s first international event, Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien reportedly admonished him for the May elections’ alleged deficiencies. At the April 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, critics accused Fanmi Lavalas of not resolving the impasse in talks with the opposition after the previous year’s elections.

With Friends Like These…

Chrétien pressured Aristide to negotiate with the opposition, putting the onus on him to resolve the dispute over the May 2000 elections. But, even after Aristide caved to pressure and convinced multiple Fanmi Lavalas senators to resign, the campaign to destabilize his government persisted. At the behest of the United States and Canada, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank blocked $500 million in loans that had already been approved. These loans were equivalent to over half the Haitian government’s annual budget. Once Aristide took office, Canadian aid to the country was cut by more than half, with almost none being directed to the government.

At the same time, the United States and Canada united Lavalas’ political opposition. Under the guidance of the International Republican Institute, a US government-affiliated agency, with ties to the Republican Party, an eclectic mix of social democratic, right-wing Christian, and business-linked parties, as well as supporters of the former François Duvalier dictatorship, merged to create the Convergence Démocratique (CD). The CD demanded the annulment of the May 2000 elections, Aristide’s resignation, and the revival of the military. Washington and Ottawa insisted the elected government reach a settlement with CD over the “disputed” May elections before they would restore aid. Privately, however, they instructed CD leaders to maintain their intransigence.

Due to the unpopularity of the defeated political opposition, the United States, Canada, and the EU also backed a seemingly independent civic opposition movement. They funneled money toward projects that ostensibly focused on human rights, democracy, and good governance, fueling vociferous NGO criticism of alleged human rights abuses by the Lavalas government.

In a December 2004 assessment of Canada’s “difficult partnership” with Haiti, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) noted that Canada’s engagement with a coalition of key players and provision of ample resources led to “relatively good qualitative results” in supporting civil society initiatives and Canadian NGO partners. This shift toward civil society helped enhance the ability of nongovernmental actors to drive astroturfed demand for reform.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also channeled tens of millions of dollars into unifying and galvanizing civil society opposition to Aristide’s government. In December 2002, they introduced the Group of 184 as the crown jewel of the “civic” wing of the opposition. The Group of 184 presented itself as a broad-based citizens movement encompassing 184 organizations representing human rights groups, women, peasants, labor, intellectuals, students, and more. Despite its purported diversity, the Group of 184 was dominated by a small segment of Haitian society. Leaders like sweatshop owners Andy Apaid Jr and Charles Henri Baker, who opposed raising the minimum wage, were at the forefront of the group.

Ottawa supported the Group of 184 and its member organizations, with CIDA allocating $13 million in projects focused on what appeared to be ennobling themes such as civil society, democracy, and human rights, implemented by affiliated NGOs. This funding also supported the development of the organization’s “social contract.” The Group of 184 and CD staged numerous demonstrations denouncing the government and calling for Aristide to resign.

Echoing the Canadian-financed Haitian NGOs, many CIDA-funded Canadian NGOs called for Aristide’s overthrow. On December 15, 2003, Quebec’s NGO umbrella group, Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale (AQOCI), called for the Canadian government to publicly denounce Aristide and his “regime,” which was “rife with human rights abuses.” Two months later the Concertation Pour Haiti, an informal group of half a dozen NGOs including AQOCI, branded Aristide a “tyrant,” his government a “dictatorship,” and “regime of terror,” and called for his removal.

However, the systematic human rights violations and political repression that characterized the Francois Duvalier dictatorship and ensuing military juntas was completely absent under Aristide. Despite deteriorating economic situation and relentless vilification by NGOs and the political opposition, Aristide’s popularity also remained solid. Polls commissioned by USAID from 2002 and 2003 obtained by New York Times journalist Tracy Kidder showed consistent popular support for Aristide. Six months after the coup, a poll showed “that Aristide was still the only figure in Haiti with a favourability rating above 50 percent” as admitted US ambassador James Foley in a confidential cable.

Low-Intensity Warfare

Ottawa played an important role in consolidating the international forces that would carry out the coup. On January 31 and February 1, 2003, Chrétien’s government organized the “Ottawa Initiative on Haiti” to discuss that country’s future. Quebec journalist Michel Vastel reported this event in the March 15, 2003, issue of L’actualité, noting that no Haitian officials were invited to the meeting. At this assembly, high-level US, Canadian, and French officials decided the elected president “must go,” the army needed to be recreated, and the country put under UN trusteeship.

Alongside international diplomatic efforts and civil society opposition, a low-intensity war was waged against the government. Between 2001 and 2003, dozens of Lavalas members and supporters were killed in Belladere and other border towns near the Dominican Republic.

On July 28, 2001, attackers targeted several police stations. In a more serious coup attempt on December 17, 2001, more than three dozen gunmen stormed the national palace. Using a helicopter and 50 mm caliber machine gun, they killed four and briefly occupied the building. Five attackers were killed by police. During the assault, the attackers announced via radio that Aristide was no longer president and declared Guy Philippe as the new police commander. The attack was reportedly prepared in Santo Domingo by former police chiefs Philippe and Jean-Jacques Nau.

At the end of 2003, Philippe and some former soldiers from an army that Aristide had disbanded intensified their cross-border attacks against government targets. A coalition of gangs in Gonaives, led by a former death squad leader, soon joined them. On February 5, 2004, these insurgents seized Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city. The heavily armed force rampaged across Haiti, killing police, emptying jails, and burning public buildings.

Initially, Canadian foreign affairs minister Bill Graham denounced the rebellion, saying Canada supported the elected government. “Aristide has been elected and he must complete his term,” explained Graham in a mid-January 2004 La Presse article. “If new elections were held today, he would probably be re-elected.”

While publicly criticizing the rebels, US and Canadian officials actually empowered them by insisting that Aristide negotiate with an intransigent political opposition working in parallel with the rebels. In mid-February 2004, Ottawa sent a delegation to Port-au-Prince with a clear directive for Aristide to “respect his obligations,” as stated by Foreign Minister Graham. Although Graham claimed the mission aimed to facilitate discussions with the opposition, its true purpose was to further weaken the elected government.

The Coup

On February 22, the insurgents captured Cap Haitien, the country’s second-largest city. Scores of police officers were killed and many more simply abandoned their posts to the better-armed rebels. As the insurgents made their way to Port-au-Prince, the international community ignored the elected government’s requests for “a few dozen” peacekeepers to restore order in a country without an army.

On February 26, three days before Aristide’s removal, the OAS permanent council called on the UN Security Council to “take all the necessary and appropriate urgent measures to address the deteriorating situation in Haiti.” The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) called on the UN Security Council to deploy an emergency military task force to assist Aristide’s government. This appeal for assistance was flatly rejected by the world’s most powerful nations.

By the end of the month, gunmen had taken control of all major cities except for Port-au-Prince, as rebels had set up positions on the city’s outskirts. The president’s supporters built barricades throughout the capital, a city of two million. They blocked the main arteries and prepared to fight. Even with most of the country in rebel hands, the government’s prospects began to improve as pro-government police recaptured several cities.

A shipment of guns, bulletproof vests, and ammunition was in Kingston, Jamaica, on route from South Africa at the request of CARICOM. Rumors were swirling that Venezuela had agreed to send soldiers to protect the constitutional government. Most important, Port-au-Prince’s size made it difficult for a few hundred men to capture.

But the battle for Port-au-Prince never took place. In the early hours of February 29, 2004, US soldiers, supported by thirty members of Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2, escorted Haiti’s elected president and his security staff onto a jet and out of the country. US officials insisted the president had resigned to avoid a bloodbath. This version of events was accepted by most of the world’s media despite Aristide’s contradictory account.

An interim government was appointed by a council put together of “wise people” by France, Canada, and the United States. This illegal interim government was headed by Gérard Latortue, a man from Florida who had not lived in Haiti for fifteen years.

Canada, along with France and Chile, provided troops for the subsequent US-led and UN-approved Multinational Interim Force. As part of the force, five hundred Canadian troops patrolled the streets of Port-au-Prince for six months.

The coup led to the creation of the Core Group, an alliance of foreign ambassadors that has heavily shaped Haitian politics over the past two decades. Nearly three years ago the Core Group appointed current leader Ariel Henry through a tweet. To maintain his rule, the United States and Canada recently put up $300 million to send a Kenyan-led force to Haiti.

February 29 marks a dark day in Haitian history and represents a moment of shame for Canada.