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Colin Powell’s Former Chief of Staff Col. Wilkerson on Haiti: Defends U.S. Role in Ouster of President, Claims Aristide’s “Will to Power is Excessive Even Obsessive”

StoryNovember 22, 2005
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We speak with Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, about the overthrow of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Wilkerson defends the U.S. role in Haiti at the time. Aristide has maintained he was ousted in what he calls a modern-day kidnapping in the service of a coup d’etat backed by the United States. [includes rush transcript]

  • Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Now, in this time, Colonel Wilkerson, not only did we see the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but we also saw the democratically elected president of Haiti ousted, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And you were the chief of staff of Colin Powell at the time. Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica has said about Powell’s legacy, quote, “Why was he leading the charge, pushing President Aristide out the door? Why was he not instead using his office as a way of stabilizing the situation and bringing about peace?” What do you know of what happened February 29th, 2004, when the Aristides were forced out of the country?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I will have to tell you that I think Secretary Powell saved a great many lives on both sides, if there are two sides. There are more than two sides in Haiti. Secretary Powell was all for and was pushing hard for some sort of reconciliation, some sort of reconciliation where we could recognize the democratically elected government of Aristide and Aristide could himself step back from the brink, a brink that he had been largely responsible for creating, and things could improve in Haiti and the government that was in existence at that time could continue in office.

Once our ambassador, Ambassador Foley, who was one of the people who changed my opinion forever about the foreign service — our ambassador in Liberia did the same thing for me in Monrovia, such brave people. They’re braver than people I have even known sometimes in combat. And Ambassador Foley, at great risk to himself, personal risk, counseled President Aristide, talked with President Aristide, confronted him with the situation that Aristide was going to meet on the morn, so to speak, confronted him with the devastation that was likely to take place, and President Aristide, to his credit, made the decision to take Ambassador Foley’s offer and to leave the country.

I know he said a thousand things different from that in the subsequent weeks and months and years, but this was a situation fraught with all kinds of chaos, and Secretary Powell and the United States government and our ambassador in Haiti, in particular, did a marvelous job, I think, under the circumstances, of preventing what could have been widespread bloodshed and getting Aristide out of the country.

One testimony to that was the fact that even though on the surface we had had all of these rancorous relations, supposedly, with France, much on the part of Secretary Rumsfeld’s having stiffed the French on almost everything they wanted to do in the way of military liaison and so forth, the French were willing to come in and help us with the situation in Haiti and to provide troops for stabilizing that situation, because they, too, understood how desperate the situation was.

AMY GOODMAN: But this —

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: So I disagree completely with the characterization that TransAfrica put on this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: This all happened after the Aristides left. Why not bring in these forces before? We were only talking about a couple of hundred thugs that were moving in on the capital?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Aristide was the focal point. Aristide was the person who needed to be removed from Haiti, and even he understood that. In the conversation he had with our ambassador, he understood that. He knew that he was the lightning rod, and that if he didn’t remove himself from the island, there was going to be a lot of bloodshed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, he would contest every point.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Of course, he would.

AMY GOODMAN: I went to the Central African Republic, and he told the story of basically what he described as being forced out of Haiti at the time, that you had this small group — I mean, these were not a large number of people — small group, known killers, people like Jodel Chamblain, who was found guilty of murder in absentia for the murder of the Justice Minister, Guy Malary, in 1993; Antoine Izmery. These were people who were known — certainly Colin Powell also knew them — had been back during the first coup, had been there negotiating with those involved in the coup. This was not the overall sentiment of the Haitian people, and he said it was the U.S. that pressed him to leave, that pushed him out, that put him onto this plane with U.S. military and security. He had no idea where was going until he was dumped in the Central African Republic.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I can’t imagine a man like Aristide, whose will to power is excessive, even obsessive, saying anything differently. Colin Powell, as you said, did know the situation in Haiti, probably as well as anyone in America. Colin Powell made the decision based on our ambassador in Haiti’s very clear presentation of the circumstances, and the President made the decision ultimately, and it was a good decision, and I would stand by that decision.

Haiti is a situation that picks at all our hearts all the time. Haiti is right next to being a failed state. And because of its proximity to the United States, we know what that failure means. And Haiti is not apparently capable of coming out of that situation. It’s a situation that, as I said, drags at all our hearts, but in this particular instance, I think a good decision was made, a decision that prevented further bloodshed that would have been widespread had it not been made.

AMY GOODMAN: Why say that the president, Aristide, had an obsession with power? This was a man who was the democratically elected president of Haiti, certainly got a higher percentage of the vote than President Bush got in this country.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Please, don’t refer to the percentage of vote as equatable to democracy, as equatable to the kinds of institutions we have reflecting democracy in America. Hitler was elected by popular vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I spoke to the head of the Steele Foundation. That was the American foundation that provided the security for the people around President Aristide, who was not allowed to send in reinforcements. Again, since we’re talking about such a small group of people who are moving in on the capital, the Steele Foundation felt he could be secured, but the U.S. government stopped Aristide’s own security from being able to come in.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Aristide felt like he couldn’t be secured. That’s the only — I was privy to the cables that come in from our ambassador. I was privy to some of the information that the secretary let me know about what was happening down there in terms of telephone calls and so forth. Aristide made the decision deep into the night that his life was in danger and that the bloodshed that would occur would probably fall at his feet, and so Aristide made a mutual decision with our ambassador to leave the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would —

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Despite what he says now, that’s what the record reflects.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I don’t doubt he felt threatened, but he felt threatened, as Kenneth Kurtz said, who was the head of the Steele Foundation, on our program, that they were not allowed to bring in the security. Why wouldn’t the U.S. government allow the security to be brought in? This was the president of the country.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s a question you should address to George Bush, because I’m unfamiliar with the circumstance you’re talking about. I know about all of the elements that were converging. I know about all of the different elements that Aristide had excited to converge. I don’t know this story about private security people, who were willing to come in at the last moment and guard Aristide. I heard some information to that effect after the situation occurred, but I am unable to comment on that with any accuracy, because I’m not familiar with exactly what you are talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And Gerard Latortue, the person who was put in charge in Haiti and his connection to the United States, how he was chosen?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s a process that unfolded after Aristide was removed, and again, I don’t have any profound insights into that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lawrence Wilkerson, who is the colonel who was the chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005.

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