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WikiLeaks Cables Reveal “Secret History” of U.S. Bullying in Haiti at Oil Companies’ Behest

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The Nation magazine, in partnership with the Haitian weekly newspaper, Haïti Liberté, has launched a series of reports based on more than 19,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. Called “The PetroCaribe Files,” the series begins with an exposé of how the United States—with pressure from Exxon and Chevron—tried to interfere with an oil agreement between Haiti and Venezuela that would save Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, $100 million per year. “It’s really amazing to see an ambassador pushing around a president, and all his officials telling them what to do, that they don’t understand this, they don’t understand that, trying to tell them what Haiti’s interests are. It’s the epitome of arrogance,” says the report’s co-author, Kim Ives. We are also joined by veteran Haiti correspondent, Dan Coughlin. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: This week, The Nation magazine published the first in a series of reports on more than [1,900] U.S. diplomatic cables on Haiti that were released by WikiLeaks. The series is a partnership with the Haitian weekly newspaper, Haïti Liberté. The cables cover an almost seven-year period, from April 2003, 10 months before the February 2004 coup which ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to February 2010, just after the earthquake that devastated the capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was yesterday awarded the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, an award recognizing factual journalism that exposes establishment propaganda, or “official drivel,” as Gellhorn called it. The prize judges said in their citation that WikiLeaks’, quote, “goal of justice through transparency is in the oldest and finest tradition of journalism.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Haiti WikiLeaks report released this week exposes how the U.S. tried to interfere with and block an oil agreement between Haiti and Venezuela.

We’re joined now by the authors of the report, called “The PetroCaribe Files,” veteran Haiti correspondent Dan Coughlin and Haïti Liberté editor Kim Ives. Dan covered Haiti for the Inter Press Service from the United Nations and Port-au-Prince between '92 and ’96. He's currently executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Begin by talking about how you got these documents, Kim.

KIM IVES: We got in touch with WikiLeaks, a, actually, coalition of journalists, and they essentially said, “We’re going to provide to Haïti Liberté these documents, and we have six months to basically treat the 1,918 documents,” and comes to about 6,500 pages.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, this is, in essence, a secret history of what’s happened in Haiti now for the — because, obviously, the U.S. embassy in Haiti has played such a huge role, sometimes a bigger role than the actual government, or most of the time.

KIM IVES: Right, exactly. It’s really amazing to see an ambassador pushing around a president, and all his officials telling them what to do, that they don’t understand this, they don’t understand that, trying to tell them what Haiti’s interests are. It’s the epitome of arrogance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve gotten a bunch of documents, Dan. Talk about the focus of — and you’re releasing them over a series of Wednesdays. Talk about this and the heart of this report.

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, no, it’s so important what Haïti Liberté and WikiLeaks have done, shedding light on what the U.S. does in Haiti. People don’t understand about the dominant role that the U.S. plays there. It’s the fourth-largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world. The U.N. mission in Haiti today is the third-largest U.N. mission anywhere in the world. Haiti plays a pivotal role, despite its small size, in world history.

And what these oil documents show, and especially from a U.S. perspective, when we in the United States, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our community groups, were raising money for Haiti — we send money for earthquake victims, we send money for hurricane relief, we —- some of us, with our churches, go on missions to Haiti to build, to help build the country. But what we realize, in these cables that Haïti Liberté has released, along with WikiLeaks, is that in fact the main obstacle to development in Haiti today is Washington, is the U.S. embassy, is what they do to undermine development. And in this particular case with the oil deal with Venezuela, it was Chevron and Exxon Mobil working with the U.S. embassy to prevent an oil deal that had dramatic benefits for the Haitian people, $100 million a year for the Haitian government to spend -—

AMY GOODMAN: For the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, they would save $100 million a year?

DAN COUGHLIN: It’s not just the $100 million a year, which is huge for Haiti. It’s 10 percent of the Haitian government budget that they used for things like hurricane relief, for schools, for hospitals. The cables themselves admit that. It’s not, quote-unquote, “corruption.” It’s for direct support of the people. But —

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this was because Chávez was offering the oil at 40 percent off the world market price?

DAN COUGHLIN: That’s right. The deal is, you get a certain — you only have to pay 40 percent of the cost of the oil upfront.

KIM IVES: Sixty percent upfront.

DAN COUGHLIN: Excuse me, 60 percent upfront, and the rest on a 25-year one-percent-a-year deal. So you’re essentially saving 40 percent of the cost of the oil. And you’re using that for direct support to the people. But also, it’s part of a package where you’re getting electricity to Haiti. And this is something that even the U.S. embassy recognized. In one cable, they wrote how — that this PetroCaribe deal “is very good for the country,” wrote the chargé d’affaires for the U.S. embassy in one of the cables. Port-au-Prince, Gonaives and Cap-Haïtien now have electricity thanks to Venezuela and Cuban technicians. “Haiti receives shipments of PetroCaribe fuel every two weeks.” And, “In addition to three power plants already in operation and promises to modernize the airport in Cap Haïtien, Venezuela’s oil refinery project,” etc. There’s tangible benefits to the Haitian people, but Chevron, Mobil, Exxon Mobil, and the U.S. embassy tried to block this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the cables talked about that the Cubans wanted to replace two million light bulbs throughout Port-au-Prince at a cost of $4 million, but that that would save Haiti, I think, $70 million annually in electricity costs. And yet the U.S. embassy was opposed to it.

DAN COUGHLIN: Yes, they’re completely opposed to it, and, it appears, simply on geopolitical grounds. And they tell the Haitians this. What’s interesting, the ambassador, Janet Sanderson, who’s now deputy assistant secretary of state, is going to —

AMY GOODMAN: She was Bush’s ambassador.

DAN COUGHLIN: She was Bush’s ambassador. Now she’s deputy assistant secretary of state. She’s going to Préval and the Haitians and telling them, “You all don’t understand how important our opposition to Venezuela is. Don’t do this deal.”

AMY GOODMAN: You know —

KIM IVES: Yeah, they said that Venezuela and Cuba are — “appear to be taking advantage of Haiti’s electricity gap.” That was another quote from Tighe, and that this is being used for Venezuela and Cuba to expand their influence.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, this is very interesting, because we were just down covering the return of the Honduran exiled president, Zelaya, back to Honduras after almost two years in exile, and very interesting comparisons to covering Aristide when he returned from South Africa to Haiti. But when we got to Tegucigalpa a few days ago, I talked to Zelaya’s former minister of culture, Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, one of those who returned to Haiti with Zelaya. So many people went into exile, afraid for their lives. And I talked to him about the pressure that he described that was exerted on Honduras by the United States.

RODOLFO PASTOR FASQUELLE: I was repeatedly approached by American military officers and diplomatic personnel who were trying to discover if I was unsure of myself or unrestful with what we were doing in government and what our plans were for the future. And repeatedly, the theme that came up was that our association with Chávez and Venezuela was or seemed such a threat and such a profoundly disgusting relationship to them, which I never understood why they would think that I would manifest myself against President Chávez. I may not like his personal style sometimes, but I respect him very much as a national leader of his own country. And I was very convinced — I am today, as well — that the kind of aid President Chávez was giving our government, through Petrocaribe and through ALBA, was absolutely necessary at the time. But they were convinced that for ideological reasons I would manifest myself in sympathy with their alarm.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you had, what was your feeling they would have done?

RODOLFO PASTOR FASQUELLE: Well, maybe if I was a more sophisticated politician, I should have invented sympathy for their intentions and found out. I was not. I was always very clear and very definitive what we’re doing is what is convenient to our national interest, it is something that is absolutely necessary under the circumstances. If you don’t want Petrocaribe to give us 40 percent credit on our oil bill, give us the credit, and we’ll consider substituting their aid for your aid, no? Which never came out.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, the former minister of culture under Zelaya, who went into exile and taught at Harvard and now has returned back to Honduras.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and Honduras is the second-poorest country the Western hemisphere.

KIM IVES: Second, right, yeah.


KIM IVES: Well, you know, what’s interesting, because in the longer version of the piece which appears in Haïti Liberté, a longer version than The Nation piece, we looked at the original proposal from Venezuela, was actually made to the government of Gérard Latortue, which the U.S. installed, the puppet government after the coup of 2004. And that government, they made clear in the cables, was very good in observing the rules and saying, “Oh, no, we’re not going to take oil from Venezuela. We’re going to go to Mexico.” And in fact, Fox in Mexico had devised a plan called the Plan de Puebla, or something, to basically counter — explicitly they state this in the cables — counter the Petrocaribe deal. So, you know, this is a very interesting way they’re trying to make up a really counter-initiative to Venezuela’s counter-initiative.

AMY GOODMAN: What was also interesting about what Fasquelle said is he said, you know, “If the U.S. — if oil companies offered us this deal, we would go with them. But we’re getting a deal. We’re saying, 'Offer us an equivalent deal.'” Dan?

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, what’s remarkable, again, is that we have Venezuela and Cuba helping Haiti out. The Haitians say, “This is nothing ideological. We just want electricity and development for our country.” And sure enough, what happens, in a matter of years, Port-au-Prince, the main cities, most of the country, electricity production skyrockets. People now can read their books at night. Hospitals have power. Schools, factories, homes have electrical power that they didn’t used to have under 50 years of U.S. development aid. All of a sudden, in two or three years, Venezuela and Cuban technicians come in, patch a few power stations together, three of them, bring in the oil supply, a steady oil supply that benefits Haiti, and sure enough, there’s electrical power. So, it’s an extraordinary transformation that happened.

KIM IVES: The hypocrisy is incredible, because we see how important energy is to the well-being of any country. Just after Sy Hersh’s interview, we see what they’re doing in the Middle East. Haiti can’t search for oil itself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kim, one thing I noticed that the cables that you’ve reported on so far show, they don’t paint a very good portrait of Préval, in fact, that Préval was constantly telling the U.S. embassy that “I really don’t like Chávez. You know, I really didn’t invite him.”

KIM IVES: Yeah, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the embassy officials are saying he appears too weak to be able to stand up to his own people on issues like reaching a deal with Venezuela.

KIM IVES: Well, really, what Préval was using was an age-old Haitian tactic, which is called marronage, which is where you say one thing but you do another. And he was really playing the U.S. — or what he thought he was playing; they ended up playing him — because he was dealing with both sides. And as they say in Haiti, you had two candles for two saints. And the U.S. couldn’t accept that. They said, “You just have the candle for Washington, Ottawa, Paris.” And so, in that case, that’s really why they’ve gone over to the Martelly camp, you know, who is a completely U.S.-centric guy who’s, I think, maybe going to go after some of the Cuban and Venezuelan projects.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Michel Martelly for a minute, the new president of Haiti. We were down there all together, Dan and Kim, for this election. When Martelly came into power, within a few weeks, at least three camps, housing approximately a thousand Haitians displaced from the earthquake, were destroyed by police in the Delmas suburb of Port-au-Prince. And he has said he will restore the army. The significance of this?

KIM IVES: Yeah, I think he’s going to go after the people. He said in an interview that these people had homes, in fact, that they were using the camps to party. I think that’s what he was saying to an Al Jazeera crew. I mean, his cynicism on that front is incredible. And here’s a guy who was the principal cheerleader for the 1991 and the 2004 coups. I mean, he’s made no bones about it that he’s a representative and friend of the army.

DAN COUGHLIN: And what is interesting in the cables, in 2006, when President Préval was elected, who was part of the Lavalas movement, the popular and democratic movement that overthrew military dictatorships, the Duvalier dictatorship in the ’80s, tried to institute a kind of popular and nationalist democratic government over the last 20 years, Préval becomes inaugurated. His first meeting is with the vice president of Venezuela, and in the national palace, the big white national palace in Port-au-Prince. A mile away is a tanker in the port carrying 100,000 gallons of fuel, diesel and unleaded gas from Venezuela.

The new president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, five years later, first meeting is with the Colombian —

KIM IVES: Foreign minister.

DAN COUGHLIN: — foreign minister.


DAN COUGHLIN: And his plan is the Colombian plan. Sharp contrast, the different poles of Latin America — Bogotá, Mexico City, you know, versus Havana, Brasilia, Caracas. This is the struggle that was happening and that these cables that WikiLeaks and Haïti Liberté, which published, makes so clear.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s coming in these Wednesdays to come. You have all the documents now.

KIM IVES: Well, we have a piece next week on the blocks about sweatshops, looking at really how the U.S. was fighting the $5-a-day minimum wage, which was being clamored for by the population, and said, “No, no, it should be $3 a day.” They saw that as way excessive. We have stuff on the militarization of the earthquake response, because, as we saw, Amy, when we went down, they were bringing guns, not gauze. We have incredible portraits of a lot of the MREs, morally repugnant elite. And —

DAN COUGHLIN: And what you see in the cables, already released up at WikiLeaks’ site or going to Haïti Liberté’s website or even, is extreme micromanagement of Haiti by the embassy. It’s baffling how interested they are in micro details of anything happening in the country, or as we’ve already seen in cables released of President Aristide coming back, there was plans to try to stop his plane ride from South Africa.

KIM IVES: Intercept him.

DAN COUGHLIN: Intercept it in West Africa or in Europe to prevent him from coming back.

KIM IVES: You were lucky, Amy, you didn’t get caught in that. And they also had Cité Soleil under a microscope. I mean, going down to the individuals, they had the whole Lavalas movement under a microscope, looking at these people. So —

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the last few seconds we have, any sense that since President Aristide has returned, that the people’s movement is beginning to reorganize itself?

KIM IVES: Yes, it is. It’s in very difficult straits, though, because they have the other team in power. And so, I think — you know, some people have said, “Why hasn’t he spoken out more and been more” — but he’s, you know, being very prudent, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Kim Ives and Dan Coughlin have put out these pieces in Haïti Liberté and The Nation, and we will link to them at

On Monday, we’ll look at the life of Geronimo Pratt, the former Los Angeles Black Panther leader who died at his home in Tanzania on Thursday, the focus of COINTELPRO in the 1970s.

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