Exposing the big lie of 'Operation Baghdad'
By Nik Barry-Shaw, published in Press for Conversion! magazine, Issue #63, Nov 2008
One 'big lie' that is consistently told about recent Haiti history, is that Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas movement used—and continue to use—street gangs, or "chimère," to violently achieve political ends [see 'Epithets without Borders']. From the attempted coup of July 2001 that President Aristide supposedly staged against himself, to his alleged instigation of "mob violence" in 1991, to the attacks he is said to have faked against his own church in 1988, there is litany of charges made by Aristide’s foes that stretch back to the very beginning of his involvement in politics.1 As Peter Hallward notes, it often seems that Aristide’s critics find it immaterial to distinguish between fact and mere accusation.2
Yet the success of a propaganda effort, as Joseph Goebbels understood, has less to do with the veracity of claims than with their magnitude and ceaseless repetition. A "big lie" is often difficult to grapple with—due to its sheer size and to all its various retellings and embellishments. Therefore, when analyzing a propaganda campaign, it is useful to isolate one element of the "big lie" that is common to most accounts. A centrepiece in the post-coup vilification of Aristide and his supporters, is undoubtedly what his opponents dubbed "Operation Baghdad."
Setting the Context
Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s second term as President of Haiti was cut short by a coup d’état. After U.S. Marines forced Aristide out of the country on February 29, 2004, Haiti quickly came apart at the seams. Many prisons had been emptied by paramilitary rebels, the country’s police force crumbled and, in the absence of any effective public order, crime, looting and gang warfare spiralled out of control.
At the same time, forces of repression hostile to the poor masses were quickly gathering strength. Three days after his appointment, the coup-installed Prime Minister, Gerard Lator-tue, openly and publicly embraced the rebels, hailing them as "freedom fighters."3 One former member of the military, the new Interior Minister, announced that the rebels—composed mostly of members of Haiti’s disbanded army and of death squads that operated during the first coup—would be integrated into Haiti’s police.4 Other rebel factions declared Haiti’s army to be re-established and, with the support of residents, set up a base in Pétionville, an upper-class neighborhood.5
Visiting the country one month after the coup, an Amnesty International delegation reported a widespread "pattern of persecution" against supporters of the deposed government.6 This persecution was an attempt to pacify the residents of Port-au-Prince’s teeming slum neighborhoods—overwhelmingly supporters of Aristide—who continued to voice their opposition to the coup and to the Latortue regime that had been imposed on them. As the Haiti Accompaniment Project reported in July 2004:
"despite stepped up repression, many groups in Port-au-Prince and in other parts of the country were preparing for ongoing long-term mobilizations to call for the return of democracy to Haiti."7
September 30th, 2004 rally
One such mobilization was a mass demonstration on September 30, 2004, that marked the 13th anniversary of the first coup that ousted President Aristide in 1991. Starting at 10 a.m., a crowd of more than 10,000 protesters wound their way through the capitol to demand an end to foreign military occupation, the departure of the Latortue government, the release of all political prisoners and the return of the constitutional government, including President Aris-tide. Soon after the crowd passed the National Palace, police opened fire on the procession, killing two demonstrators.8 Some press reports claimed that protesters then retaliated, attacking police officers and looting businesses.
In a radio interview the next day, Gerard Latortue was unrepentant about police actions saying: "We fired on them. Some died, others were wounded, and others fled." The government banned all further demonstrations and Latortue indicated that they would take action against unauthorized protests.9
The day after the demonstration, government officials announced the discovery of the headless bodies of three police officers, and quickly blamed the supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas Party for the crime.10 These beheadings were soon described as the beginning of "Operation Baghdad," a supposed campaign of terror and mayhem led by pro-Lavalas gangs intent on destabilizing the country and forcing the return of President Aristide. "The decapitations are imitative of those in Iraq, and they are meant to show the failure of U.S. policy in Haiti," explained anti-Aristide politician Jean-Claude Bajeux, head of the Centre Ecuménique des Droits de l’Homme (CEDH).11 In the following weeks, Port-au-Prince would crackle with gunfire. The hospital morgue began to overflow with bodies, and press reports indicated that the death toll reached at least 46 in the first two weeks of October alone.12
The very origins of the name "Operation Baghdad" are deeply contested. The coup-imposed government alleged that "fanatical hordes" of Aristide partisans, "constantly claim responsibility for the terror they have instilled, operating under names echoing doom and gloom such as ‘Operation Baghdad.’"13
However, according to Joseph Guyler Delva, head of the Haitian Journalists Association and widely regarded as one of the most even-handed observers in Haiti, the term "Operation Baghdad" was coined by Latortue himself. Lavalas supporters, on the other hand, had never spoken of any such operation.14
The coup government’s version of the September 30th events was equally suspect. Government officials presented no evidence that the decapitations were the work of Aristide supporters, and did not release any photos or even the names of the alleged victims.15 The Comité des Avocats pour le Respect des Libertés Individuelles (CARLI), a human rights group, reported that two officers had been decapitated, but that those responsible were former soldiers, not Lavalas supporters. CARLI’s investigation also concluded that the beheadings had taken place on September 29, the day before the demonstration. It was not until after the demonstration that the government began to blame the crimes on Lavalas supporters, said CARLI.16
The coup government also failed to substantiate its more general claim that a violent campaign against them was underway. As the Observer (UK) noted one month after "Operation Baghdad" had allegedly begun:
"Evidence of such ‘destabilization’ is scant. Shootings and robberies have become common in central Port-au-Prince, but it is not always clear whether they are politically motivated or the result of crime sparked by desperate economic conditions and an ineffectual police force. [Minister of Justice] Gousse said he knew of only two lootings, and that police officers had only been killed while carrying out raids in slums."17
CARLI’s investigation of "Operation Baghdad" yielded the same result, leading the organization to conclude "that there was no such operation launched by Lavalas supporters."18
Whatever its origins, the story of "Operation Baghdad" is highly instructive. The sectors that had participated in the opposition to Aristide’s government—such as Bajeux’s CEDH and other foreign-funded "civil society" groups, political parties and intellectuals (including those generously supported by the Canadian International Development Agency)—enthusiastically took up the epithet, "Operation Baghdad." They joined in blaming Aristide and his supporters for the violence wracking Port-au-Prince, and called on the interim government for more vigorous action against Aristide’s "chimère."19
U.S. and U.N. officials were also quick to jump on the "destabilization" bandwagon. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was unequivocal about the source of the post-September 30 violence:
"Over the past two weeks, pro-Aristide thugs have murdered policemen, looted businesses and public installations, and terrorized civilians."20
U.S. Embassy officials also repeated the claim that police officers were beheaded in "a slum gang operation called ‘Operation Baghdad’" when speaking with human rights investigators.21
On the other hand, Lavalas activists and political leaders, immediately denounced the violence, and condemned the police for firing on unarmed demonstrators. One Lavalas spokesperson identified "Operation Baghdad" as "a calculated attempt to manipulate the media and U.S. public opinion."22 Trade unionist Paul "Loulou" Chery charged that the label had been concocted to "demonize the movement, the people and Lavalas supporters in particular."23 Likewise, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Cap-Haitien marched behind a banner on December 16, 2004 decrying "Operation Baghdad" as a plot by the bourgeoisie "to put an end to Lavalas."24 These statements, however, rarely if ever found their way into domestic or foreign press reports about the violence in Haiti after September 30.
Faced with a regime intolerant of dissent and outraged at the attacks on the demonstrators of September 30, the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince erupted. Häiti Progrès reported on October 6 that
"Skirmishes, barricades and spontaneous demonstrations have sprung up daily in poor neighborhoods around the capital since the police and paramilitary gunmen tried to stop a massive demonstration on September 30."25
When the barricades failed to prevent the heavily-armed police and UN troops from entering these neighborhood, the invaders would sometimes be met with a hail of stones, bottles or other debris thrown by residents.26
Escalation of anti-Lavalas Violence
Destabilization or no destabilization, the Latortue government unleashed a new wave of repression against the Lavalas movement. Scores of prominent Lavalas figures and activists from popular organization were arrested on charges of being "intellectual authors of the violence," of hiding "organizers of violence," or simply being "close to the Lavalas authorities." These arrests were conducted with neither warrants nor evidence—hardly surprising given the vagueness of the charges.27 Haiti’s prisons then began to overflow with Lavalas members or poor people from pro-Aristide neighbourhoods.28
In the following weeks, the frequency and violence of paramilitary police operations also increased dramatically, with some community members describing their neighborhoods as being "under siege." The November 2004 delegation of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights described these chilling conditions:
"On an almost daily basis, the Haitian National Police in various units and dressed in a wide variety of uniforms, often masked, select and attack a neighborhood in operations reported as efforts to arrest armed gang members, with UN soldiers backing them up.. . . [T]here are dead bodies in the street almost daily, including innocent bystanders, wo-men and children. The violent repression... has generated desperate fear in a community that is quickly losing its young men to violent death or arbitrary arrest."29
These incursions were characterized by "execution-style killings" and, in some cases, massacres, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). On October 26, twelve young men were killed in the Fort National area, while on October 27, the bodies of four young men were found in Bel-Air. "All had been shot in the head and at least one had bound wrists," according to the ICG, and witnesses identified black-clad police officers wearing balaclavas as the perpetrators.30
Calls for an independent enquiry into the killings were stonewalled by the Latortue government. Coup-regime authorities categorically denied any responsibility for human rights abuses by its security forces, while blocking access to either the penitentiary or the morgue by journalists and human rights observers.31
No words of rebuke were forthcoming from Latortue’s international patrons, as the administration went about its grim work. Despite a long-standing arms embargo on Haiti, the U.S. government authorized the shipment of thousands of new firearms to the Latortue government in November 2004, including military rifles and machine guns.32 Then-Prime Minister Paul Martin, visiting Haiti on November 14, promised Canada would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the so-called "interim government" in their efforts to re-establish "security." "You’re not going to have a democracy when people are afraid for their lives," said Martin.33
"A lie," Mark Twain famously remarked, "can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." The case of "Operation Baghdad" proved to be no exception. The interim government’s account of a violent slum-gang conspiracy would receive wide dissemination in the Haitian media, convincing much of middle class that the "fanatical hordes" of poor, urban Lavalas supporters were to blame for the rising tide of violence and criminality.34 The international wire services repeated the same storyline, seldom, if ever, questioning the government’s account.
Port-au-Prince’s poorer residents, for their part, understood quite clearly the utility of the "Operation Baghdad" fiction.
"By saying we are ‘gang members’ or ‘chimères,’ the press are trying to discredit our demands for justice," a Bel-Air resident explained to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. Who cares about giving justice to those criminal gang members who just sell drugs and misbehave?"35
"The police officers will say that this was an operation against gangs. But we are all innocent," said Eliphete Joseph, a young man from the Fort National district speaking to journalists following a police massacre:
"The worst thing is that Aristide is now in exile far from here in South Africa, but we are in Haiti, and they are persecuting us only because we live in a poor neighborhood."36
1. See Jim Naureckas, "Enemy Ally: The Demonization of Jean-Bertrand Aristide," Extra!, Nov./Dec. 1994, and Ben Dupuy, "The Attempted Character Assassination of Jean-Bertrand Aristide," Peter Philips & Project Censored. Censored 1999: The news that didn’t make the news, 1999.
2. "What Dupuy means by the word ‘immaterial,’ presumably, is that when he repeatedly accuses Aristide of creating and directing these [gangs], it is immaterial whether or not such accusations are in fact correct." Hallward is here reviewing Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power. Peter Hallward, 'Aristide and the Violence of Democracy,' Haiti Liberté, July 2007.
3. "South Africa to Become Permanent Home for Aristide," Washington Post, March 25, 2004.
4. Reuters, March 23, 2004. www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/670.html
5. Tom Griffin, Haiti Human Rights Investigation: November 11-21, Center for the Study of Human Rights, p.18-24.
6. Amnesty International, "Haiti: Breaking the cycle of violence: A last chance for Haiti?"
7. Laura Flynn, Robert Roth, Leslie Flem-ing, "Report of the Haiti Accompaniment Project," June 29-July 9, 2004. www.haitiaction.net/News/hap6_29_4.html
8. James Painter, "Haiti’s Escalating Violence," BBC News, October 14, 2004.
9. Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, "Haiti Human Rights Alert: Illegal Arrest of Political Leaders," October 8, 2004. www.ijdh.org/articles/article_human_rights_alerts_oct8.html
11. "Aristide supporters step-up protest," Associated Press, October 2, 2004. auto_sol.tao.ca/node/879
12. "Haiti violence death toll rises to 46," China Daily, October 13, 2004.
Other sources would claim this significantly undercounted the number of deaths: "On October 15, it was reported that the State Morgue in Port au Prince had issued an emergency call to the Ministry of Health to remove the more than 600 bodies that had been piling up in the previous two weeks," Anthony Fenton, "Media Disinformation on Haiti," Znet, October 25, 2004.
13. Press Release from Communication Office of Prime Minister, Oct. 22, 2004.
14. Reed Lindsay, "Police Terror Sweeps Across Haiti," The Observer, October 31, 2004,
Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, "Caught in Their Own Trap," Haiti Action Committee, November 9, 2004.
15. IJDH, "Haiti Human Rights Alert."
16. Griffin, p.39.
18. Griffin, p.39
19. e.g. Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé, "Haïti dans la violence des chimères," AlterPresse, November 12, 2004. www.alterpresse.org/spip.php?article1919
20. "Violence in Haiti," U.S. Department of State Press Statement, Oct. 12, 2004.
21. Griffin Report, p.31.
22. "’Operation Baghdad’ brought to you by AP," Haiti News Watch, Oct. 3, 2004.
23. Paul Chery interviewed by Kevin Skerrett, "A Situation of Terror," Znet, November 4, 2005.
24. "Massive Protest demanding Aristide’s return in Haiti’s second largest city," Haiti Info. Project, Dec. 16, 2004. www.haitiaction.net/News/HIP/12_16_4.html
25. "Street Resistance to Occupation Regime Surges," Haiti Progrès, October 6-12, 2004.
26. "Haiti: Rebellion in Bel Air," Revolutionary Worker, October 17, 2004. rwor.org/a/1255/haiti_current _situation.htm
Rosean Baptiste interview by Lyn Duff, "We Won’t Be Peaceful and Let Them Kill Us Any Longer," Nov. 4, 2004.
"Resistance in the Slums of Port-au-Prince," Black Commentator, October 14, 2004. blackcommentator.com/109/109_haiti.html
27. IJDH, "Haiti Human Rights Alert."
28. Lindsay: "‘We fought to bring democracy to Haiti, but since this government took over, it’s been a dictatorship,’ said Mario Joseph, a lawyer who worked to bring past human rights abusers to justice under Aristide and is now representing 54 people he says are political prisoners. The prison was emptied by armed groups led by former military officers after Aristide’s departure, and Joseph believes the majority of the new prisoners are Lavalas members."
29. Griffin, p.12-13.
30. "A New Chance for Haiti?" International Crisis Group, November 18, 2004, p.15.
31. Lindsay, and Griffin, p.53.
32. Robert Muggah, "Securing Haiti’s Transition: Reviewing Human Insecurity and the Prospects for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration," Small Arms Survey, 2005, pp.10-12.
33. "Martin says violence preventing democracy from taking hold in Haiti," CBC News, November 14, 2004.
34. Haiti’s media is largely owned by the viscerally anti-Aristide bourgeoisie. According to CARLI, about 20 of the 25 radio and print outlets are owned by wealthy members of the Group of 184—the civil society alliance that lead opposition to Aristide’s government—and uncritically disseminate the anti-Lavalas propaganda. See Griffin, p.40.
35. Baptiste interview.
Nik Barry-Shaw is a researcher and activist with Haiti Action Montreal. The above article is from Press for Conversion! magazine, issue #63 (November 2008), titled 'Lies without Borders: How CIDA-funded ‘NGOs’ waged a propaganda war to justify Haiti’s 2004 coup.' Press for Conversion! is published by the Ottawa-based Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade. Previous issues of Press For Conversion! include:
* #62: 'Putting the Aid in Aiding and Abetting: CIDA’s Agents of Regime Change in Haiti’s 2004 Coup'
* #61: 'CIDA’s Key Role in Haiti’s 2004 Coup d’état: Funding Regime Change, Dictatorship and Human Rights Atrocities, one Haitian ‘NGO’ at a Time'
* #60 'A Very Canadian Coup d’état in Haiti: The Top 10 Ways that Canada’s Government helped the 2004 Coup and its Reign of Terror'
To subscribe or order back issues of Press for Conversion!, click here.
* A Fabrication by the Group of 184
* Two Human Rights Investigations
* Not the Usual Suspects: Making and Breaking Illusions in Haiti
* Alternatives, to the Truth // Alternatives, to Democracy