Wikileaks-exhumed cables reveal how the U.S. resumed military aid to Duvalier

Jean-Claude Duvalier shaking hands with unidentified US military officer in 1970s.jpg

Jean-Claude Duvalier shaking hands with unidentified U.S. military officer in 1970s

By Kim Ives, published in Haiti Liberté weekly, edition of April 10, 2013

A chorus of outrage is building against former Haitian president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier as he sits in the dock of a Haitian court, charged with crimes against humanity during his 15-year rule. However, the U.S. government remains strangely and completely silent. A 40-year-old trove of diplomatic cables, newly unearthed by WikiLeaks and reported exclusively here on Haiti Liberté, helps explain why.

Around midnight in the early morning hours of July 23, 1973, a fire broke out in the packed armory of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier’s National Palace. Almost immediately, “President-for-Life” Duvalier and his Army Chief of Staff, General Claude Raymond, telephoned the U.S. Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, Thomas J. Corcoran, to tell him about the fire and ask for U.S. assistance in putting it out.

The destruction of Haiti’s large weapons cache became, in the following days, the perfect excuse to resume the sale of military weapons as well as military aid and training to the Duvalier dictatorship, after it had been halted during the 1960s under the notorious regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Haïti Liberté has been able to reconstruct a clear picture of this pivotal historical moment thanks to a new website constructed by WikiLeaks called the Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy or PlusD. The site enables searching of over 1.7 million State Department cables from 1973 to 1976 which had been declassified and stored in the U.S. National Archives, but which were all but inaccessible due to the form in which they were kept.

Haïti Liberté is one of 18 media partners worldwide to which WikiLeaks provided exclusive access to the PlusD search engine in early March, prior to its unveiling for public use on April 8. This article is one of several which Haïti Liberté will publish based on the cables from the 1970s.

“General Raymond and President Duvalier telephoned me at 0245 [2:45 a.m.] to report fire in National Palace and to request fire extinguishers which we dispatched,” Corcoran explained in a July 23, 1973 Confidential cable. “At about 0325 Foreign Minister [Adrien] Raymond informed me fire was spreading throughout ammunition storage including small arms and artillery ammo and beyond control of local firefighting facilities.”

The U.S. immediately deployed a team of nine military firefighters from its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They “acted without regard for their personal safety in fighting the fire in an area in which a large variety of explosive ordnance had been stored and exposed to intense heat over a period of hours,” Corcoran wrote in a July 27, 1973 cable commending their valor.

On July 24, 1973, the day immediately after the fire, Foreign Minister Raymond “summoned” Corcoran and “presented [him] a list of ammunition and mortars which GOH [the Government of Haiti] urgently desires to purchase for the ‘maintenance of public peace, the tranquility of families and protection of property.’”

Adrien Raymond, “on instructions of President Jean-Claude Duvalier” urgently requested millions of rounds of ammunition for Haiti’s army. Among the largest items on the long list were 1.5 million 30 caliber rounds for M-1 rifles, 800,000 rounds for 50 caliber machine guns, 600,000 5.56 mm rounds for M-16 automatic rifles, and 400,000 9mm rounds for Uzi submachine guns. Duvalier also wanted dozens of mortars and tens of thousands of mortar shells.

The Haitian Army had never waged war against any enemy other than the Haitian people. Nonetheless, Corcoran and the U.S. Embassy’s military attaché called the list “reasonable” and “strongly recommend[ed] approval of sale,” the cable said.

In the following weeks, Haiti’s military laundry list would grow in length and breadth, asking not just for more ammunition but also for weapons and supplies, including 38 and 45 caliber handguns, M-1 rifles, M-2 carbines, 30 and 50 mm machine guns, 60 and 81 mm mortars, grenade launchers, cartridge belts, and high-capacity ammo clips.

On July 25, 1973, Corcoran sent another Confidential cable where he encouraged the State and Defense Departments “to take quickest possible action” and make an “extraordinary effort to expedite paper work” to reply favorably to Duvalier’s request because, among other reasons, “the Haitian Government is prepared to pay for its requirements, and there is no reason why the US should not get the sale.” (Not long before, Haiti had bought weapons from Israel and Jordan, as well as “from ‘fast-buck’ private arms dealers,” according to Corcoran.)

Furthermore, Duvalier’s “request seems an excellent opportunity to strengthen U.S. influence even more with the GOH... and to win the goodwill of individual Haitian military officers,” Corcoran wrote in the cable.

The U.S. had curtailed military aid and sales to Haiti after François Duvalier expelled a U.S. Marine Mission from the country in 1963. But following Papa Doc’s death in April 1971, his son, “Baby Doc,” inherited the “Presidency for Life” and began to repair and improve relations with the U.S., from which he wanted aid and investment.

Indeed, the sale was approved and the “GOH delivered to [the U.S.] Embassy Sept. 19, 1973 check no. 163211 drawn on National Bank of Republic of Haiti, same date payable to USAFSA [United States Army Forces in South America] in amount of dollars $273,411.40,” Corcoran wrote in a Sept. 19, 1973 cable. The sale was equivalent to over $1.4 million in 2013 dollars.

Nonetheless, the U.S. was worried about appearances, and Corcoran wrote in an Aug. 17, 1973 cable that “no, repeat no, USG [U.S. Government] aircraft delivery [is] contemplated.” Instead the guns and ammo arrived on two Pan Am charter flights on Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, 1973, the cables show.

Around the same time, the U.S. Embassy was also negotiating with the regime for the sale of six “Cadillac-Gage commando armored cars,” two of which would be used for the Leopards, an elite counter-insurgency unit of the Haitian army.

The U.S. wanted to proceed with the sale of just four cars, the request for which had been made in June, before the armory fire. The Embassy wanted to finish with the pending ammunition and weapons sale “before addressing [the] problem of [the] other two cars,” but Duvalier had threatened to take his business elsewhere, namely to the French, Corcoran explained in an Aug. 31, 1973 cable. He recommended that “that State/Defense [Departments] reply gently to implied threat to transfer order to French firm that financial outlay of that sort to French company at time U.S. giving economic assistance to Haiti might raise all sorts of questions.”

Military aid was also being resumed in this period. The “Embassy can understand Haiti's exclusion from the list of countries eligible for grant military training in the 1960s, owing to political conditions prevailing at that time,” Corcoran argued in a Nov. 23, 1973 cable. “However, times in Haiti have changed. The country has a new, young president moving in some positive new directions.” He claimed that, “in the past few years, repression has been markedly and genuinely eased in Haiti” and that the government was showing “political restraint” and “a clear desire to do more for the economic development of the country.”

Most importantly, “in international organizations, the new government in Haiti has been a dependable, good friend of the U.S., for whatever that is worth,” Corcoran wrote. “All these are positive tendencies which it seems to us should be encouraged.”

This was  “why we believe some grant military training for Haiti is very much in our interests,” because, among other things, it provided “the opportunity to establish some influence with the whole generation of younger Haitian military officers who know nothing of the U.S.”

“In sum,” Corcoran concluded, “it seems illogical that Haiti... should still be singled out for total exclusion from grant training programs enjoyed by nearly every other nation of the hemisphere for many years -- training which will contribute substantially to advancing a number of our important interests in the region.”

Indeed, U.S. military aid was resumed, specifically to train units like the Leopards, which was described by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in a 1986 report as“ particularly brutal in dealing with civilians.”

Researcher Jeb Sprague explains in his 2012 book Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti that the Leopards were trained and equipped, “by former U.S. marine instructors who were working through a company (Aerotrade International and Aerotrade Inc) under contract with the CIA and signed off by the U.S. Department of State. Baby Doc himself trained with the Leopards, forming particularly close bonds with some in the force. A U.S. military attaché bragged that the creation of the force had been his idea.

“Aerotrade’s CEO, James Byers, interviewed on camera, explained that he had ‘no trouble exporting massive quantities of arms. The State Department signed off on the licenses, and the CIA had copies of all the contracts. M-16 fully automatic weapons, thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition, patrol boats, T-28 aircraft, Sikorsky helicopters. Thirty-caliber machine guns. Fifty-caliber machine guns. Mortars. Twenty-millimeter rapid-fire cannons. Armored troop carriers.’ A handful of veterans from this force would later serve, off and on, as key figures in various paramilitary forces” which the U.S. used to carry out and maintain coups against the governments of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2004.”

Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti in January 2011 from a 25 year golden exile in France and is technically under house arrest in Haiti. An appeals court is receiving testimony and evidence from witnesses charging that Duvalier must be tried for crimes against humanity. Haitian and international human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of torture and extrajudicial killings and imprisonments under Baby Doc’s 15 year rule from 1971 to 1986. In January 2012, investigating judge Carves Jean dismissed the human rights charges against Duvalier, arguing that the statute of limitations had expired. The appeals court may overrule that decision.

About 7,000 of the 1.7 million secret diplomatic cables from 1973 to 1976 deal with Haiti. The cables “were reviewed by the United States Department of State's systematic 25-year declassification process,” WikiLeaks explains on its PlusD website. The cables were then “either declassified or kept classified with some or all of the metadata records declassified” and then “subject to an additional review by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).” Those cables released then “were placed as individual pdf’s at the National Archives as part of their Central Foreign Policy Files collection.”

However, the cables in their pdf form, “are actually quite difficult to get to for the general public,” explained Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks and a former Icelandic investigative journalist, to Democracy Now on April 8. “It’s very hard to access them. So, in our view, the inaccessibility and the difficulty of accessing them is a form of secrecy... so we found it important to get it to the general public in a good searchable database.”

Twenty-five year old U.S. classified documents are supposed to be reviewed and declassified every year. The public should therefore be able to view classified documents as late as 1988. However, the declassification process has only been done until 1976, meaning it is 12 years behind schedule.

Another reason that WikiLeaks established the PlusD database is because “there has been a trend in the last decade and a half to reverse previously declassified policy,” Hrafnsson explained. “A policy set out, for example, by Clinton in the mid-'90s was, a few years later under Bush, is reversed. It was revealed in 2006, for example, that over 55,000 documents that were previously available had been reclassified by the demand of the CIA and other agencies. And it is known that this program continued at least until 2009. So, it is very worrying when the government actually starts taking back behind the veil of secrecy what was previously available.” The PlusD database cannot be snatched back behind the veil.

The 1973 to 1976 cables cover the period that infamous Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in office under both Presidents Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford. WikiLeaks has therefore dubbed the trove the “Kissinger Cables.” (After he left his post, Kissinger and his wife visited Duvalier in Haiti.)

In 2011, WikiLeaks provided Haïti Liberté exclusively with about 2,000 secret U.S. cables related to Haiti dating from 2003 to 2010. (The compilation of ‘WikiHaiti’ articles published in 2011 by Haïti Liberté and The Nation magazine are compiled here on the website of the Canada Haiti Action Network.) They came from a larger 250,000-cable trove, known as “Cablegate,” which was anonymously provided to WikiLeaks by U.S. Corp. Bradley Manning. He has been imprisoned in “pre-trial detention” some 1,050 days under torture-like conditions. He is being court-martialed and may be charged with treason, which can carry the death penalty. There is a world-wide movement denouncing the U.S. government’s treatment of Manning, who also gave to WikiLeaks a video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down 12 civilians in Iraq in 2007, including two Reuters journalists.

With the release of PlusD and the “Kissinger Cables,” WikiLeaks has once again provided journalists and people around the world a glimpse into the shrouded world of U.S. foreign policy. While Top Secret cables are not available, the thousands of formerly Secret and Confidential cables from the 1970s provide a clear look into how the State Department fashioned its rationales for many outrageous policies during that period, like the resumption of military aid to an unelected, corrupt, and repressive dictator like Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Kim Ives is an editor of Haiti Liberté weekly newspaper. The newspaper has recently issued a financial appeal for assistance in maintaining its research, writing and publication schedule. You can contribute to its vital reporting by going to the ‘Make a donation’ feature on its website or by mailing a cheque to: 1583 Albany Ave., Brooklyn  NY, USA 11210. You can reach the newspaper by phone at 718-421-0162.