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1991-1994: Death squads and state violence under the military regime


1991-1994: Death squads and state violence under the military regime

 In 1991, Haiti—the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere—brought to power its first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Months later, Aristide was overthrown by the Haitian Armed Forces. The coup, the 32nd in Haiti’s history, unleashed a wave of torture, massacre and systematic sexual violence against women. Aristide was eventually returned to power by U.S. intervention, only to be overthrown yet again in 2004.  Haiti still struggles to establish democracy and the rule of law and to address severe burdens of poverty, malnutrition and disease.

From slave revolt to nation: 1804-1915

In 1804, Haiti emerged from the world’s only successful slave revolution to become the first free republic of the African diaspora. Once the jewel of France's Caribbean colonies, Haiti was also a slave colony where life for many was nasty, brutish and short: more than a third of new slave arrivals died within one year.  Reluctant to part with this prized colony, Napoléon Bonaparte sent an invading expeditionary force to put down the revolt. Remarkably, the fledgling Republic's defenders prevailed. Still, Haiti’s independence came at a bitter price: in 1825 France agreed to recognize Haiti in exchange for a massive indemnity of 150 million francs. These debt repayments - reparations to former slave-owners for the deprivation of their 'human chattels' - continued well past World War II. The Republic of Haiti has endured a history of dire poverty, violence, and crippling foreign debt. [1] Today, 76% of Haitians live on less than 2 dollars per day. [2]

U.S. occupation: 1915-1934

Fearing that political instability would compromise its Caribbean interests, the U.S. invaded in 1915. U.S. forces drafted a new constitution and founded the Forces Armées d’Haiti (FADH) “Haitian Armed Forces,” an institution that ironically would present the main obstacle to democracy in Haiti for the duration of the 20th century. Although U.S. forces withdrew in 1934, the years of occupation would leave an indelible mark on Haiti-U.S. relations.  Throughout the 20th century, U.S. policy would swing from well-intentioned humanitarian aid to indifference and to unfortunate alliance with Haiti's more brutal rulers. [3]

Haiti under the Duvaliers: 1957-1971

François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in 1957.  An anti-Communist, “Papa Doc” plunged Haiti into a reign of terror. Duvalier’s opponents, real or imagined, were murdered or “disappeared” by his private death squads: the Tonton Macoutes, named after a child-snatching bogeymen of Creole legend. [4]

In 1971, power passed to Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, but the systemic corruption and violence continued.  A popular revolt in 1983 forced the Reagan Administration to reassess U.S. support for the Duvalier regime.  In 1986, a U.S.- supported coup dislodged “Baby Doc." [5]

» Read here and here for more on human rights abuses under the Duvaliers.

 Fraph: Haiti's most notorious death squad

In December of 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, won 67% of the popular vote in Haiti's first democratic presidential election.  He took office on February 7, 1991, but was overthrown that September in a coup led by dissatisfied elements of the army. From October 1991 to September 1994, a military junta governed Haiti.

 From the outset, the military regime was characterized by widespread and systematic human rights violations—government and paramilitary forces killed an estimated 4,000 Haitians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the land border to the Dominican Republic or risk the high seas. [6] [7]

The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Haiti (FADH), Raoul Cédras, was the head of the new military government. The three pillars of Cédras's regime were: the FADH; the National Intelligence Service, led by Col. Michel-Joseph Francois; and the paramilitaries, the most notorious of which organized under the banner of the Front Révolutionnaire Armé pour le Progrés d’Haïti (Armed Revolutionary Front for the Progress of Haiti, aka, FRAPH).  Their acronym, FRAPH, was a pun on the French and Creole verb “frapper”: “to hit.” Led by the flamboyant Emmanuel "Toto" Constant,  FRAPH participated in a broad campaign of extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, torture and arbitrary detention. In addition to a massive campaign of sexual violence against women, FRAPH became notorious for the collection and display of the scalps and faces of its political opponents. U.S. investigative reporters later revealed that FRAPH had been founded with support and funding by the C.I.A. and the D.I.A. [8]

Refugee crisis: Haitian "Boat People"

During the violent years of 1991-1994, tens of thousands of Haitians crowded into unseaworthy boats to seek asylum in the United States.  The George H.W. Bush administration responded with a controversial policy of interdicting refugees on the high seas. Over 30,000 Haitian refugees were detained in a legal limbo at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A number of lawyers, including Harold Hongju Koh, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Department of State under the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2013, worked tirelessly throughout the 1990s to secure basic rights of due process for the Haitian refugees.  [9]

» Read more on the legal battles for the rights of Haitian refugees.

In the fall of 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. forces to prepare to launch a military intervention to restore the democratically elected Aristide to power. Faced with the prospect of invasion, Haiti’s military leaders agreed to step down and Aristide was returned to office in 1995.  Unfortunately, Aristide was unable to arrest and neutralize many of Haiti’s former military leaders.  Compounding the problem of impunity was the fact that a number of Haitian human rights abusers, including FRAPH leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, came to the U.S. for safe haven. [10]

The Raboteau Trial: Human rights accountability in Haitian courts

Under Haiti’s 1994-2004 constitutional governments, an accountability movement emerged from the Haitian grassroots.  CJA partner Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) pioneered an effort to bring the leaders of the military regime to justice. [11]

BAI's most prominent case was the prosecution of those responsible for the 1994 Raboteau Massacre, a vicious attack on an impoverished, pro-democracy neighborhood. In 2000, BAI successfully brought the perpetrators of the Raboteau Massacre to trial before the Criminal Tribunal of Gonaïves.  The outcome of the trial marked one of the key human rights victories in the Americas: 57 defendants were convicted, including the top military and paramilitary leaders of the 1991-1994 military dictatorship.[11]

» Read more about the work of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, recipients of CJA’s 2009 Judith Lee Stronach Award for Human Rights.

Haiti's 33rd Coup

Eventually, the social-democratic coalition that had backed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began to fray.  Running on a populist platform in 2000, Aristide won a landslide victory in elections that were marred by civil unrest and allegations of voter intimidation.  As opposition from Haiti’s business community and former military leaders mounted, the international community began to withdraw its support for Aristide.

In early 2004, armed groups backed by the country's economic elites escalated their campaign of violence against Haiti’s constitutional government.  Among the rebels were several key figures from the 1991-1994 military regime who made a reappearance on Haiti's political stage including members of the death squad FRAPH. In March 2004, Aristide was airlifted out of the country by the U.S., voluntarily, by some accounts - against his will, by others. [12]


[1] Richard A. Haggerty, ed. Haiti: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Available at: http://countrystudies.us/haiti/

[2] "Haiti: Country Brief", The World Bank, 2007. Available at: http://tinyurl.com/yassqu5 

[3] Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[4] "François Duvalier, Jean-Claude Duvalier", More or Less: Heroes and Killers of the 20th Century. Available at: http://www.moreorless.au.com/killers/duvalier.html

 [5] "Haiti: Bad Times for Baby Doc", John Moody; Dean Brelis, Time Magazine, Feb. 10, 1986. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,960612,00.html

[6] The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer, Common Courage Press, 2nd edition, 2003.

[7] "Who is Aristide?", excerpt from The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer, Common Courage Press; 2nd edition (April 1, 2003).  Available at: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Haiti/Who_Is_Aristide.html

[8] "Our Payroll, Haitian Hit", Allan Nairn, The Nation magazine, October 9, 1995. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Secrets_Lies/HaitiOct95_Nairn.html. Accessed: 2009-10-29. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ksWnPatG)

[9] "Captured by Guantánamo", Harold Hongju Koh, Sep.26, 2005. Available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-institutions_government/guantanamo_haiti_2867.jsp

[10]"Giving 'The Devil' His Due", David Grann, The Atlantic, June 2001. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200106/grann 

[11] Bureau des avocats internationaux, Raboteau Massacre Trial. Available at: http://www.ijdh.org/articles/article_raboteau.htm 

[12] "Who removed Aristide? Paul Farmer reports from Haiti", Paul Farmer, The London Review of Books, April 15, 2004. Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n08/farm01.html