Review by Lars Schoultz
Ralph Pezzullo, Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 312 pp.
In September 1991 the Haitian military overthrew the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest who a few months earlier had won-and won overwhelmingly-Haiti’s first reasonably fair election since the overthrow of the Duvalier dynasty in 1986. To this day Aristide’s seven-month tenure remains open to wildly different interpretations, but the international community’s condemnation of the coup was unanimous. At Washington’s urging the Organization of American States imposed a trade embargo as the first step in a three-year effort to convince the country’s new leader, General Raoul Cédras, to reverse the coup and allow Aristide to return to Haiti and resume his presidency.
Ralph Pezzullo’s Plunging into Haiti is a chronicle of this effort, told from the perspective of his father, Lawrence Pezzullo, whose career as a Foreign Service Officer had been cut short a dozen years earlier by his decision to oppose the Reagan administration’s effort to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Pezzullo’s uncommonly acute diplomatic skills had propelled him up the State Department ladder to be ambassador to Uruguay, and then in mid-1979 the Carter administration sent him to Nicaragua just as the Somoza regime was crumbling. There he served with genuine distinction until seven months into the Reagan administration, with which he disagreed over the decision to attempt the overthrow the Sandinista government by creating, training and arming the contras. At that point Pezzullo resigned, wrote a well-regarded book about his experience (At the Fall of Somoza) and became president of Catholic Relief Services. That was what he was doing in early 1993, two months after the Democrats reclaimed the White House, when the State Department invited him back into the fray as President Clinton’s special envoy to Haiti. His assignment: get Cédras out and Aristide back in.
From the White House perspective, this was not a “foreign policy” problem. Cédras’ 1991 coup had sparked a wave of pro-Artistide rafters, which President Bush sought to stanch by instructing the Coast Guard to intercept the rafters, take them to Guantánamo and then return them to Haiti unless they could demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. This occurred at the same moment that the Soviet Union was dissolving, and with it Moscow’s subsidies to Cuba, where a severe economic downturn was encouraging an equally large number of Cubans to set off for Florida. The Cubans were welcomed-they were fleeing Communist tyranny-and President Bush saw no double standard, but just about everyone else could see the inconsistency in bringing any Cuban picked up at sea to Florida while returning almost every Haitian to an environment that was equally repressive. During the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton had criticized the refoulement, implicitly charging the Bush administration with racism, but then, after winning the election, the Coast Guard informed him that an estimated 200,000 now-hopeful Haitians were preparing to depart for the United States. That obliged the President-elect to announce that he would continue the Bush policy.
Then he called in Lawrence Pezzullo. With the help of Dante Caputo, the United Nations and OAS special envoy to Haiti, Pezzullo gathered Haiti’s contending factions at New York’s Governors Island, and in June 1993 they agreed that Aristide would be restored to power. The devil was in the details of the transition, however-details that Ralph Pezzullo’s book admirably provides from his father’s intimate perspective. Buoyed by a U.N. resolution authorizing the deployment of a multilateral policy and military force under the command of a U.S. Army colonel, everything went well for about a week after the Governors Island accord, and then everything fell apart-and often in the most awkward manner possible, captured best by the arrival and hasty departure of the USS Harlan County in October after pro-Aristide demonstrators threatened a hostile reception. This, writes Pezzullo (p. 277), “completely undercut the diplomatic initiative. It was a decision based on the fear that the American public would equate Haiti with Somalia, where only days earlier eighteen U.S. Rangers had been killed and dragged through the streets.”
The White House chickened-out, obviously infuriating Ralph Pezzullo and presumably his father: “In the end, President Clinton’s preoccupation with the day-to-day public consumption of his decisions superseded any concern for the political realities in Haiti, statesmanship, or a need to maintain U.S. commitments to its international partners.” Envoy Lawrence Pezzullo was trying to negotiate what he considered reasonable terms for Cédras’ departure, but the President’s advisers “couldn’t handle the heat they were getting from President Aristide and his champions in the press. For the first time in history, a president of the United States was bullied into accepting the agenda of a deposed president of Haiti.”
With the Coast Guard picking up 2,000 Haitian rafters a day and TransAfrica activist Randall Robinson beginning a highly publicized hunger strike to protest the lack what many in the Black community saw as the administration’s lack of commitment to restoring democracy in Haiti, it was not long-April 1994-before Pezzullo threw in the towel. The Clinton administration appointed former congressman William Gray as his replacement, and in July the United States received the U.N. Security Council’s permission to “use all necessary” means to facilitate the departure from Haiti of the military leadership.
Even that threat did not lead to the concession of power, and after waiting for nearly two months President Clinton went on television to say that “the message of the United States to the Haitian dictators is clear: Your time is up. Leave now, or we will force you from power.” He made one last try, sending to Port au Prince a high-level delegation led by former President Carter to communicate this message in person. Finally, on September 18 President Clinton ordered the invasion and only then did General Cédras capitulate. With their U.N. mandate, 15,000 U.S. troops began “Operation Uphold Democracy,” which was soon converted into a United Nations peacekeeping force. In October Aristide returned to Haiti.
Pezzullo’s volume focuses on the period of his father’s service, and it provides a fascinating but extremely narrow perspective; it is best read, perhaps, as a detailed diary of the U.S. negotiators. The author is not a diplomat, however, and there are lamentable lapses that his father would (or should) have caught:
Of Cédras’s wife, Pezzullo writes (p. 71): “She didn’t talk philosophically about history or the paradoxes of life. She was much more instinctual and seductive. According to the rumor mill in Port-au-Prince, she had many female and male lovers, including her husband’s chief of staff.” The ”rumor mill” has no place in a book of this sort.
Of the initial U.S. military commander in late 1993, Pezzullo writes (p. 182) that “by all accounts, Colonel J.G. Pulley … was not the right man for the job,” but the only “account” that he cites is that of his father.
Of the international and domestic human rights workers in Haiti, all of them functioning under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, Pezzullo writes uncharitably (p. 180) that U.S. embassy officer Ellen Cosgrove “had learned to act quickly when someone was arrested on what seemed to be a trumped-up political charge. She would find an attorney and get the person released before nightfall. ‘The human rights groups would prefer that the accused individual stay in jail,’ she said later, ‘so he or she could be beaten. They wanted a body they could document.’” Anything is possible, of course, but such an inflammatory charge requires solid evidence.
But no one can question the validity of what seems to be Pezzullo’s principal conclusion (p. 274): “Policymakers in the White House turned a blind eye to 190 years of Haitian history. They didn’t understand the Haitian people or their culture, and they were unprepared for the deep currents of distrust and fear that run through Haitian politics.”
Lars Schoultz is William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written widely on American foreign policy and inter-American relations.