Five Weeks in another Town: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
After white water rafting down the Blue Nile with Wilbur Smith, I returned to Los Angeles broke and with no prospects for immediate employment. The year was 1994 and among the news stories was President Clinton’s effort to reinstate Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s president.
In August 1994, President Carter was asked by General Raoul Cedras to try and mediate the government crisis and avoid an unnecessary U.S. military invasion of Haiti. Carterrelayed this information to President Clinton, who asked him to undertake a mission to Haiti with Sam Nunn and General Colin Powell for the purpose ofenticing Cedras to leave Haiti, which would eventually allow Aristide to returnfrom exile and reclaim power.
General Cedras’s chief of staff was a Canadian spook by the name of Lynn Garrison, having been put there by the CIA. Garrison is the author of several subsequent books on Haiti (available through Amazon); in which books he mentions me frequently. I had previously interviewed Garrison in Los Angeles and as a result we had become close friends.
Desperately in need of a job, I phoned the Los Angeles office of Reuters and explained my relationship with Garrison and suggested that they might want to send me to Haiti to cover the Clinton showdown with General Credras. We agreed to compensation which because I had called them wasn’t all that much. But it did cover expenses, and I was experienced in taking advantage of an unlimited expense account.
Next I phoned ABC News and got hold of an assignment director who was familiar with my camera work in Zimbabwe, and managed to get myself assigned as one of the ABC cameramen covering the Carter-Nunn-Powell negotiations with Cedras. I was also to record a planed Peter Jennings interview with Cedras; which interview was to take place in Port-Au-Prince. The ABC salary was union scale, but they also covered expenses. All I had to do was make sure that I got duplicate receipts.
Had I known that I was the only member of the ABC crew in Haiti that spoke some Bantu French (which is close to the Creole dialect spoken by the Haitians) and the danger in which I would be placed, I would have held out for more money.
Packing one of ABC’s SP Betacams, I arrived in Haiti during late August of 1994, and by pulling strings managed to get a hotel room at Port-Au-Prince’s Hotel Montana, a 105 room luxury hotel where most of the media people were staying. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had the room next to mine.
At the time, Christiane was single and I couldn’t help myself. During my stay in Haiti we managed to squeeze in two dinners together at Port-Au-Prince’s best restaurant, the Plantation. In comparison to the Plantation, the Hotel Montana’s excellent cuisine placed a close second.
Four years later Amanpour would marry James Rubin, who at the time was spokesman for the US State Department. Rubin then went to work for Sky-TV and the Rubins moved to London, where Amanpour’s sister, Lizzy Amanpour, was a producer for British television broadcaster, Channel 4. Although born in London, Christiane grew up in Tehran, where her father, Mohammed, was an Iranian airline executive.
In any event, Christiane quickly brought me up to speed on what was happening. I pre-tended that my having access to General Credas’s chief-of-staff wasn’t the primary motivation for her interest in me, and she pretended that her interest in me was some-thing other than exploiting my singularly valuable resource. She was good; but so was I.
Unaware of my Reuters affiliation and believing that I was a mere ABC cameraman, albeit with potential unprecedented access to General Raoul Cedras, Amanpour shared more of the background facts she had managed to dig up than she would normally have, had she known that I was faxing the information I gained from her directly to the Reuters news service. The outcome was that her superb investigative reports were appearing in print simultaneously with her divulging them on camera to CNN.
It didn’t take long for her to figure out what was happening and the tongue lashing I re-ceived will forever remain embedded among my worst nightmares. Needless to say, dinners at the Plantation came to an abrupt end.
Known among the intelligence community as the Shadow, Lynn Garrison (a former major and fighter pilot in the Canadian Air Force) was working 20 out of 24 hours per day in an attempt to do the right thing for Haiti. It was clear that the Shadow did not think that returning the murderous Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s president was in the country’s best interest.
Garrison’s evaluation of General Cedras was that he was far from being the right person to lead Haiti to a prosperous future but that he was capable of holding the country to-gether through the next election; an election in which the General make sure was fair.
Because of the blockade, Peter Jennings had trouble getting his executive jet into Haiti. The UN wouldn’t authorize clearance. Dan Rather had already arrived; having done so by one of the two commercial airliners allowed access to the Port-au-Prince, Francois Duvalier International Airport.
Since Jennings was coming specifically to interview LT General Cedras, I put in a call to Quartier General, Cedras’s headquarters. Lynn Garrison was surprised to learn that I was in Port-Au-Prince and when I told him why he promised to do what he could to get clearance for Jennings’ small jet.
After a delay of two days, Jennings arrived at the Hotel Montana. He was not a happy camper. Whether his clearance came from General Cedras or from some other source, because of his mood I never asked. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall the two of us ex-changing a single word.
It was interesting to see the contrast between Rather’s team and our team. Jennings was not an easy man to work with and his handlers were extremely uptight. By contrast, Dan Rather was loose and treated his team as “family.”
Lynn Garrison was present during the Jennings interview and he told me that he had tried to have Cedras give interviews in English. Filtering his personality through inter-preters diluted the effect of his words. He would speak in French, and then wait for the translation, sitting there like a clothespin. His English was good and Garrison felt that the accent would do much to win the audience over.
Lynn told me that, unlike Aristide, Cedras was a charming, charismatic interview subject. Time and time, Garrison’s suggestion was blocked by those who insisted Cedras “must speak in the official language of Haiti.”
The General finally agreed to give a short English interview as part of Dan Rather’s programming. This was played immediately after one of Clinton’s inflammatory speeches, doing much to reduce the impact of the American President’s words.
I lit the set for the Jennings interview and operated one of the two cameras; the camera recording Cedras; turning my video over to one of Jennings handlers at the end of the interview. Jennings packed up and left Haiti soon as the interview was over, without so much as a thank you.
In fact, the Jennings people bailed out so fast that I was able to get an exclusive inter-view with General Cedras for Reuters without ABC knowing what was happening.
Invasion of Haiti by American forces was imminent. But before doing so, President Clinton had decided to send former President, Jimmy Carter; Sam Nunn (D-Ga), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and General Colin Powell to negotiate the exile of LT General Raoul Cedras.
At first, sending Jimmy Carter as one of the negotiators struck me as a bad idea. Carter’sfailure to back the Shah of Iranis the reason we’re fighting fundamentalists Islam today. But that’s not to say that the man didn’t occasionally get some things right.
Carter is to be praised for getting a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, even though the agreement cost Anwar al-Sadat his life. When I interviewed former Israel President Ezra Weitzman, he told me that he and al-Sadat grew to actually love each other and that Weitzman cried upon hearing of his assassination.
More recently, in the March 2002 election in Zimbabwe, Carter was on hand to do his thing. Twenty-seven other countries also sent representatives, including South Africa. Twenty-five representatives filed affidavitsthat the election was likely a fraud. Only Carter and the representative from Mozambique certified that the election was fair. Even South Africacondemned the results. And, of course, later Carter repeated his performance on the citizens of Venezuela.
The results of Venezuela’s recall election, monitored by Carter was so rigged in advance to favor President Hugo Chavez that the European Union refused to play an observer’s role. Exit polls indicated that Chavez was going to be defeated by a whopping 76 percent, yet he magically won. Only Carter continues to insist that the recall election was fair.
But to my surprise, Carter was right about Haiti. In a face-to-face meeting with Cedras, Carter began to realize that Cedras was not the enemy. Carter phoned Clinton, the call of which was monitored by Lynn Garrison, unbeknownst to Carter/Powell/Nunn. In his book, Garrison reports (and later Carter confirmed) that Carter toldClinton that Cedras’ main concern, or a major concern, was not for himself but that he could not leave his country and see it fall into civil war under Aristide. Carter explained that Cedras’ motivation was not that of a ruthless killer but of a military leader with concern for his country.
Carter stated that he was no longer convinced that the removal of Cedras was in the best interests of the Haitian people. Carter pointed out to Clinton that Cedras was not a dictator, and to call him that was “plain wrong.” Cedras had not led the coup against President Aristide but had saved his life during the coup. Carter said that forcing him into exile was wrong. But Clinton would have none of it. He wanted Cedras out and Aristide reinstated to power, the sooner the better. President Clinton was determined to return the defrocked priest, psychotic murderer, and devout communist to power and, of course, the rest is history.
General Colin Powell strongly supported President Clinton. Sam Nunn, although sharing Carter’s belief that Cedras should remain in charge of the military, reluctantly went along with Powell. With Clinton, Powell and Nunn against him, Carter performed as he did during his presidency, instead of following his own beliefs he caved to the popular consensus.
Unbeknownst to Carter and Nunn (it has always been suspected that Powell had been given a heads up), President Clinton had already launched the invasion, even while Carter/Powell/Nunn were negotiating with Cedras.
As Lynn Garrison describes it in “Voodoo Politics,” On September 18, from his hotel suite in Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Montana, ABC cameraman Dennis F. Stevens was monitoring a live, short wave broadcast of the Rush Limbaugh radio show via an illegal (but tolerated) pirate program feed into the Guantanamo Naval Station, in Cuba.
Limbaugh’s subject that day was, naturally, the Haiti mission. Callers were speculating if and when the paratroopers from Ft. Bragg would be departing for the Port-au-Prince International Airport. But Clinton had repeatedly stated that there was no immediate invasion plans, including a statement that very morning.
Then a caller phoned in and claimed that the airlift was underway. A skeptical Limbaugh quizzed the caller until he was satisfied the caller knew what he was talking about. One after the other, additional callers phoned in to confirm that, yes indeed; the invasion had been recently launched from North Carolina and was underway.
Garrison writes, “While the Carter/Powell/Nunn team was negotiating with Cedras, I got a fax that simply read, ‘Time to shred the documents and get out of Dodge.’ It was signed ‘DF,’ which both told me who had sent it and what it meant. When I went in the General’s office and informed Carter that the invasion was underway, he didn’t believe me. After finally convincing him, he appearedstunned.”
Actually, the story is a little more complicated. I didn’t have my own fax machine and to use the Hotel Montana’s fax would mean leaving a copy of the fax with hotel employees (who were being bribed to be on the lookout for such faxes), until they got around to transmitting the same.
At first, I tried phoning Quartier General but the line was continually busy. But I had a suspicion that faxes were getting through. So I phoned Reuters’ Los Angeles office and dictated the cryptic letter that Lynn Garrison received, less than ten minutes later.
Lynn Garrison writes, “While Carter and Nunn seemed genuinely stunned that the in-vasion was underway, Colin Powell was the one who confirmed the news.” He did so by merely checking his watch, not by making any phone calls.
In the days following the invasion of Haiti by 15,000 American teenagers pretending there was danger where none existed, I wrote a series of articles for Reuters and submitted hours of video footage to ABC News. Less than half of my Reuters articles were pub-lished, most were considered anti-Aristide. And Reuters had come down strongly on the side of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After only five weeks in-country, I was recalled.
Some of the video footage was aired, but with voiceovers that usurped the original in-tegrity and intent of the footage. My ABC stint lasted four out of the five weeks I spent in Haiti. But, unlike Reuters, ABC had no complaints about my performance.
LT General Cedras finally stepped down and left Haiti on 13 October, 1994. But by that time I was safely back in Los Angeles where I watched the whole thing unfold via excellent reports from ChristianeAmapour, on CNN.
When history looks back on this episode, like his cut and run retreat from Somalia, re-placing Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s president will not go down as among President Clinton’s finest moments. On the contrary, it will likely be recorded as being among his very worst decisions.
If you want to read more about this period in Haitian history then I suggest “Voodoo Politics,” by Lynn Garrison, available on Amazon. --- Dennis F. Stevens