2004 Haiti rebellion

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Map of Haiti

Date & Place of Origin

Date & Place of Conclusion


Political dispute between government and opposition; general social tension.


Overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; reconstitution of Haitian army.

Rebel leaders


Capture of cities; neutralization of the Police Force.


Ouster of Aristide.
International intervention led by the United States.
Beginning of diplomatic sessions in order to establish a transitional government.
Diplomatic crises over nature of Aristide's departure.

Opposing parties
Attackers Defenders
National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti Republic of Haiti
Guy Philippe Jean-Bertrand Aristide
5,000 (estimated) 5,000 (approximation)
Unknown 50 (estimated)

The 2004 Haiti rebellion was a conflict fought for several weeks in Haiti during February 2004 that resulted in the premature end of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's second term.


Controversy over Aristide's departure

Aristide claims that U.S. soldiers who took him out of Haiti by aircraft on February 29 kidnapped him. He claims that he was forced into exile and insists that he is still the legitimate and democratically elected president of Haiti.

The United States, on the other hand, claims that he resigned the presidency voluntarily and maintains that it offered him transportation for his own safety.

Controversy over Aristide's election in 2000

Supporters of Aristide claim that his election to a second term on November 26, 2000 was "free and fair" and cite the verdicts of observers who judged it to have been so at the time. They also point to the 91.8% of the vote that he received as evidence of his overwhelming popularity.

Others disagree, arguing that Aristide's election was essentially unopposed because opposition candidates withdrew from the race and called for a general boycott. This boycott was claimed to have been in response to the lack of any real chance of a fair election, and it came in the wake of what was claimed to have been electoral fraud by government workers counting votes in the legislative elections earlier in the year. According to the Haitian constitution, a seat in the legislature must be won with a 50% majority, but in the 2000 elections, eight pro-Aristide Lavalas Family candidates were declared winners after obtaining only a plurality of the vote. According to Aristide's opponents, this was evidence of his blatant disregard for constitutional principles; however, Aristide's supporters note that the eight seats in question would not have affected the overall Lavalas majority even if the opposition had won them all.

U.S. Congressman Conyers wrote:

"Unfortunately, there were irregularities that occurred in the election and there is a post-election problem of the vote count that is threatening to undo the democratic work of the citizens of Haiti. Without doubt there were irregularities that occurred in the election which have been conceded by the CEP." [1] (http://www.house.gov/conyers/news_haiti.htm)

The National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) says that there were delays in the distribution of voter identification cards. [2] (http://www.nchr.org/hrp/archive/electionspost.htm)

Aristide's supporters claim that an opposition boycott of the election was used as a ploy in order to discredit it and that they did not have anywhere near majority support. [3] (http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0224-09.htm)

Rebel aims and claims

The rebellion began with the capture of the country's fourth-largest city, Gona´ves, on February 5, 2004, by a rebel group calling itself the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front. This group changed its name to the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti on February 19.

The rebels and the civilian opposition demanded the resignation of President Aristide, but he emphasized his determination to remain in office until the expiration of his term on February 7, 2006, saying that Haiti not continue its history of moving from "coup d'Útat to coup d'Útat," but should instead move from "elected president to elected president." Aristide's opponents, while accepting in principle that Haiti should have an elected president and a constitutional process, disputed his legitimacy and accused him of ruling undemocratically.

According to the rebels and the civilian opposition, the rebellion is a natural consequence of what they consider Aristide's poor governance and the alleged rigging of the 2000 elections by his Lavalas Family party.

The rebellion was primarily led by former soldiers of the Haitian army, who were responsible for civilian massacres during the early 1990s. Even prior to the widespread violence that engulfed the country, a low-level rebellion was waged by some ex-soldiers in the central part of the country since at least 2003, resulting in several dozen deaths. Furthermore, on February 14, 2004, a number of former soldiers (including the notorious former militia leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain) returned from exile in the Dominican Republic and announced their intention to join the rebels based in Gona´ves.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Jean-Bertrand Aristide

According to supporters of Aristide's government, the rebellion is a coup attempt by former soldiers of the now-disbanded army (which ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994) on behalf of the old elite of Haiti, which seeks to put an end to Aristide's populist policies and democratic rule.

The rebels attributed much of their rapid success to Aristide's failure to disarm the army when he disbanded it in 1995; however, they insisted that the popular support they enjoyed was an equally important reason. Haiti's police force of 5,000 proved too small and poorly armed to be effective in resisting the rebel advance, and in some places, such as Cap-Ha´tien, the police seemed not have mounted any substantial resistance at all.

Another component of the rebellion were the armed gangs which have frequently been a source of violence in Haiti in recent years. The most prominent of these gangs, the "Cannibal Army," long acted as Aristide's primary support base in the city of Gona´ves before turning against him in recent years. This gang, which went on to become one of the main elements of the National Revolutionary Front, claimed the weaponry it used to fight the government during the rebellion was given to it by Aristide at a time when it still supported him; allegedly, the main purpose of this was to intimidate the opposition during the 2000 elections. The government, however, said that the rebels possessed firepower far greater than that of the Haitian police, and that the weaponry must therefore have a foreign origin.

To a large extent, Haitian politics has been defined by such gangs for the last decade. While it was an anti-Aristide gang that initiated the rebellion in Gona´ves, pro-Aristide gangs fought back on behalf of the president. Gangs on both sides have been accused of grim atrocities, such as executing supporters of the other side and setting fire to their homes.

According to many supporters of Aristide, the country's civilian opposition acted as a fifth column in support of the rebels. The opposition denied this, but many of its members acknowledged their support for the rebel cause, and stated that they share with the rebels the common goal of Aristide's ouster: according to them, they disagreed with the rebels only on the question of employing violent rebellion to that end.


Beginning in Gona´ves with the capture of that city's police station on February 5, the rebellion quickly spread to the nearby port city of Saint-Marc. 150 policemen unsuccessfully attempted to retake Gona´ves on February 8, losing between three and 14 officers in the battle. Saint-Marc was, however, recaptured by police and pro-Aristide militants by February 10, although sporadic fighting continued in the area. Apparently in cooperation with the rebels in these northern and central cities, the south-western city of Grand-Goave was taken by rebels at around the same time, but it too was recaptured by police shortly thereafter.

In the following days, the rebels pursued a strategy of advancing toward the country's second-largest city, Cap-Ha´tien, and the town of Dondon, just south of Cap-Ha´tien, changed hands several times in the fighting. Furthermore, some of the rebels reached the Dominican border, blocking the main road between the two countries and enabling the aforementioned exiled former soldiers to cross into Haiti. By February 17, the rebel forces had captured the central town of Hinche, near the Dominican border.

On February 19, rebel leader Buteur Metayer declared himself president of the areas under his control, with former Cap-Ha´tien police chief Guy Philippe as commander of the rebel army. On February 22, the rebels captured Cap-Ha´tien with surprisingly little bloodshed: the city's police had already made clear their reluctance to fight, and the well-armed and trained rebels had little difficulty sweeping aside the resistance of the city's pro-Aristide militants. On February 24, the rebels followed this success with the capture of the northwestern city of Port-de-Paix and with the capture of Tortue Island, off the northern coast, the next day. These gains effectively ended government control in northern Haiti.

On February 26, a new band of rebels captured the country's third-largest city, Les Cayes, in the southwest. More rebel successes followed, as they captured the strategic crossroads of Mirebalais, 30 miles from the country's capital, Port-au-Prince. Many foreigners were evacuated from Haiti in anticipation of an assault on Port-au-Prince, but an estimated 20,000 U.S. citizens remained in Haiti as of the end of February.

International mediators led by the United States proposed a peace plan on February 20 which would have allowed Aristide to serve out his term but with substantially reduced powers, a prime minister from the civilian opposition, and fresh legislative elections. It was virtually the same plan Aristide had agreed to weeks earlier with Caricom. In a news conference the next day, Aristide agreed to the plan.

The plan, however, was rejected by the opposition, which continued to demand the president's resignation. France blamed Aristide for the violence and suggested that he should leave office in favor of a transitional government; however, many governments in the region were more supportive of Aristide, alarmed at the precedent that would be set by the overthrow of a democratically elected leader by armed rebels.

The United States, which intervened in Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power, publicly adopted an ambiguous stance on the issue. While condemning the rebellion and claiming that it did not support the violent overthrow of democratically elected leaders, it also pointedly blamed Aristide for contributing to the violence and has suggested that an end to the crisis might require Aristide's absence from the political scene. For its part, the Haitian government accused the U.S. of supporting the rebels and planning Aristide's ouster.

Some American politicians strongly criticized the Bush's administration's stance on Haiti, on the grounds that it was failing to take a moral stand in defense of Haitian democracy. On February 25, for instance, U.S. Congresswoman Corrine Brown called the Bush Administration's non-intervention in Haiti racist.

President Bush refused to soften U.S. policy on Haitian refugees. During the week ending February 27, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated 867 refugees.

Media reports suggested that under huge pressure from the rebels as well as from the governments of the United States and France, Aristide left office on February 29 as well as the country, escaping first to the Dominican Republic and then to the Central African Republic. Aristide first claimed he was kidnapped by U.S. Marines, then later claimed that a group of Haitians and civilian Americans forced him to resign and then flee into exile (a claim the United States vigorously denied). According to the Washington Times, an aircraft provided by the U.S. carried the displaced Aristide and his American wife, Mildred Trouillot Aristide, to the Central African Republic. [4] (http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040302-124204-5668r.htm) Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre succeeded him as interim president and petitioned the United Nations Security Council for the intervention of an international peacekeeping force; the Security Council met within the day to authorize such a mission. As a vanguard of the official UN force, a force of about 1,000 United States Marines arrived in Haiti within the day, and Canadian and French troops arrived the next morning; the United Nations indicated it would send a team to assess the situation within days.


U.S. Marines patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince on March 9, 2004.
U.S. Marines patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince on March 9, 2004.

Following the departure of Aristide, the rebels entered Port-au-Prince, declaring their intent to protect Alexandre and the people from pro-Aristide militants, popularly known as "chimeres". In the days since, they have sent mixed messages about their intentions: rebel leader Guy Philippe first declared himself the "chief" of a new Haitian military and vowed to arrest the pro-Aristide prime minister, Yvon Neptune, but then promised to disarm his forces. On March 3, at least three people were killed in a battle between rebels and pro-Aristide militants. Supporters of Aristide have vowed to continue pressing their demands for his return, and on March 7, 6 people were reported killed at an anti-Aristide rally.

The death toll from the conflict is believed to have been at least 300. Prime Minister Neptune has estimated that the cost of the rebellion from fighting and looting amounts to about U.S. $300 million.

CARICOM governments denounced the "removal" of Mr. Aristide from government. They also questioned the legality of subsequent American-backed maneouvers to install a new president. The Prime Minister of Jamaica, P.J. Patterson said that, the episode "sets a dangerous precedent for democratically elected governments anywhere and everywhere, as it promotes the removal of duly elected persons from office by the power of rebel forces." [5] (http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2474164)

As reported by the BBC, on March 3, CARICOM called for an independent inquiry into the departure of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and says it will not send peacekeepers at this time. [6] (http://www.bbc.co.uk/caribbean/news/story/2004/03/040303_haiticaricom.shtml). The Jamaican Prime Minister Patterson said there had been no indication during discussions with the US and France that the plan which CARICOM had put forward prior to Aristide's departure was not acceptable. "In respect of our partners we can only say this, at no time in our discussions did they convey to us that the plan was unacceptable so long as president Aristide remained in office. Nor did they suggest to us anything of a nature pertaining to the conduct of President Aristide in office that would cause us to come to the judgement ourselves that he was unsuited to be the President of Haiti," Mr. Patterson said. The government of South Africa has also called for an investigation into the nature of Aristide's departure.

After two weeks in the Central African Republic, Aristide departed for Jamaica and arrived there on March 15. The visit was ostensibly for the purpose of enabling Aristide to see his young daughters, but the transitional Haitian government claimed that the visit could destabilize Haiti further by encouraging Aristide's supporters and announced it was breaking off diplomatic relations with Jamaica in protest. In response, Jamaica announced that it would not recognize the new Haitian government.

As of April 2004, the United States, France, Canada and Chile have troops in Haiti as part of a force sanctioned by the United Nations.

Aristide's claims

Aristide has repeatedly claimed that he was kidnapped or heavily pressured to leave the country.

"They were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting, and be killing in a matter of time. They came at night ... There were too many. I couldn't count them."

Some have come forward to support his claim saying they witnessed him being escorted out by American soldiers at gunpoint. [7] (http://www.independent-media.tv/item.cfm?fmedia_id=6023&fcategory_desc=Under%20Reported) [8] (http://www.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,4057,8833298%5E1702,00.html) [9] (http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/03/16/1712217) The U.S. has unequivocally denied this version of events.

Aristide has also denied that a letter he left behind constitutes an official resignation.

"There is a document that was signed to avoid a bloodbath, but there was no formal resignation," he said. "This political kidnapping was the price to pay to avoid a bloodbath." [10] (http://www.washtimes.com/world/20040304-114549-5318r.htm)

A translation of the letter from Creole by an Indiana University linguistic professor reads:

"If tonight it is my resignation that will avoid a bloodbath, I accept to leave with the hope that there will be life and not death." [11] (http://www.washtimes.com/world/20040304-114549-5318r.htm)

Aristide insists that he remains legally president. On March 8, he issued the following statement at a press conference in the Central African Republic: "I am the democratically elected president and I remain so. I plead for the restoration of democracy. We appeal for a peaceful resistance."

Many prominent African-American political figures, including Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee, as well as Randall Robinson, and Jesse Jackson, have supported and publicized Aristide's claim that he was kidnapped by American-supported armed guards supporting an anti-democratic coup.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials strongly deny the claims, saying they acted at Aristide's request.

A spokesman for the Steele Foundation, the San Francisco-based organization which supplied Aristide's bodyguards, denied that Aristide had been kidnapped, and pointed out that his employees accompanied the former President to the Central African Republic. "If he was kidnapped, we were kidnapped, too," the spokesman said.

However, the Steele Foundation declined to comment on a report that they were forced by U.S. officials to delay the flight of a small group of extra bodyguards by one day. One day too late to help Aristide. [12] (http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/world/haiti/8074989.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp&1c)

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