Washington Times Publishes IRI Response to New York Times Article

A false picture of Aristide
The Washington Times
By Lorne W. Craner
“Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos,” claimed a recent New York Times headline. The three-page article charged that rogue Bush administration officials connived with the International Republican Institute to undermine democracy in Haiti.

I sent a 189-word response to the Times. They refused to print it without substantive edits, in part, they said, because “the News Department disputes the accuracy of” a sentence in my letter. The Times contends that IRI “undercut the official United States policy and the Ambassador [Dean Curran] assigned to carry it out.” IRI allegedly did so in collusion with rogue administration officials who differed with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Haiti policy. “As a result the United States spoke with two sometimes contradictory voices,” which, says Mr. Curran, “made efforts to foster political peace ‘immeasurably more difficult.’ “

The article charges that IRI consorted with rebels who overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Mr. Aristide is depicted as a man who “wanted to raise the minimum wage and force businesses to pay taxes” but “did not know much about the games that politicians play.”

The article’s problems start with its title. Haiti did not tilt toward chaos in 2004. Sadly, it has been chaotic for most of the last two centuries. Second, the article’s underpinning, that a rogue group under Colin Powell opposed his Haiti policy, was contradicted by Mr. Powell himself before the article was published. Asked in an e-mail from the Times if there was a policy difference between him and the officials, Mr. Powell responded: “I don’t accept that view.” The Times neglected to mention Mr. Powell’s response, maintaining the article’s false foundation.

Third, former Ambassador Curran’s complaints about IRI are echoed by neither his predecessors nor his successors (indeed, the Times cropped Mr. Curran’s predecessor, who praised IRI, from a photo of IRI officials). Furthermore, both the Clinton and Bush administrations granted every IRI request for Agency for International Development Haiti funding.

Mr. Curran’s charges are backed by three Haitians, all of whom are onetime Aristide allies and have obvious motivations to criticize IRI. More to the point, IRI did not “undercut” Mr. Curran by urging Haiti’s opposition to forego negotiations with Mr. Aristide. In fact, IRI’s vice president (at the request of one of the rogue officials) phoned opposition leaders to urge them to reach an accommodation with Mr. Aristide. If Mr. Curran did feel “undercut” by rogue officials or IRI, why did he fail to raise the issue directly with Mr. Powell or through the State Department’s “dissent channel”? Used more than 200 times since 1971, it enables any foreign service officer to send policy dissents straight to the secretary.

A fourth problem is the charge that IRI consorted with the rebels who overthrew Mr. Aristide. The source, an accused death-squad leader, is hardly the quality one once expected of the Times. As the article notes, the charge was investigated and found false by AID’s inspector-general.

A fifth problem is the depiction of Mr. Aristide, whose tendencies are gently implied (“Aristide… had little experience with the give and take of democracy”). The article’s author, Walt Bogdanich, said recently “Haiti doesn’t have a democracy and hasn’t had one in two years” since Mr. Aristide’s 2004 departure. Past Times editorials were more honest. The November 2000 Times editorial “Haiti’s Disappearing Democracy,” said Mr. Aristide’s “almost certain return to power in Sunday’s elections was achieved by trampling on democratic procedures. The weeks before the voting were marred by bombings and other politically motivated violence.” A February 2004 editorial, “Haiti’s Descent,” said “Aristide was once hailed as Haiti’s democratic champion. Now, his second presidency is declining into despotism.” For the reasons those editorials detailed, IRI did, as charged, work solely with Haiti’s democrats from 2001-2004.

President Reagan did not help create IRI to work with those practicing “despotism.” Doing so would also contravene longstanding AID policy. Career AID officials approved IRI’s approach to helping level Haiti’s political playing field, and knew who IRI was training because they attended every session.

Last but not least, in stringing together disparate rumors while omitting contradictory facts, the Times merely echoed 2004 Mother Jones and Salon.com articles. The author of the latter says the Times “story was remarkably similar to a story I wrote nearly two years ago. On Jan. 3, 2005 a New York Times staffer named Ursula Andrews e-mailed me, asking for help with research. I was excited that the newspaper of record was finally picking up on the story and complied with their request. When the Times published its story, it contained no citation of my work.”

IRI is not the reason for Haiti’s chaos, or the reason Mr. Aristide had to flee. No one would have been happier than IRI if democracy had advanced under Mr. Aristide. Instead, as Mr. Powell states, Mr. Aristide was “a man who was democratically elected, but did not govern democratically, or govern well.” And he has to bear a large burden, if not the major burden, for what has happened.

President of the International Republican Institute, Lorne W. Craner is a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

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