The Ambassador in Haiti ( Wilson ) to the Secretary of State

No. 1220

Sir: In continuation of my despatch no. 1214 of January 9,1 I have the honor to report that the political disturbances precipitated by the student strike proceeded with unusual rapidity, and finally brought about perhaps the principal object of the strikers, the overthrow of President Lescot.…

The strike spread with great rapidity on January 8 and 9, extending to Government offices and commercial houses and by January 10 may be said to have been complete. The movement was remarkably contagious, undoubtedly because the demands of the students comprised not only the restoration of political guarantees and the holding of new legislative elections but also because of the unpopularity in which President Lescot and some of his supporters, such as Gontran Rouzier, the Under Secretary of State for the Interior, were held by the public.…

Undoubtedly with the purpose of effecting a stabilizing influence and diminishing the popular effervescence, President Lescot delivered a radio address at 1:00 on January 9 (see Embassy’s telegram no. 12 of January 91). In doing so the President probably injured rather than helped his own cause. The tenor of the address (see my despatch no. 1219 of January 101) which is harsh rather than conciliatory, and the tone of the President’s voice did not produce the desired result. He announced categorically that he would remain in office instead of suggesting a modification of the Constitution, and his proposal to hold a popular referendum offered no immediate relief. As I have reported in my telegram mentioned above, I called on the President that day at my own request and asked him to enlighten me on the current of events. He frankly acknowledged that the agitation was directed against his own person and then assumed a defensive position by virtually denying that his administration was harsh or repressive of popular liberties. I felt it useless to contest the accuracy of his views, [Page 903] although I gave no indication of concurring in them. He then produced the text of his proposed address, which he read to me in full, and appeared to invite my comment. As the time was growing extremely short, I could do no more than suggest to him informally that it might be helpful if he could include some reference to his Government’s support of the United Nations Charter or President Roosevelt’s Four Liberties.2

On January 10 the crisis was precipitated by the resignation of the entire Cabinet. It merely added fuel to the flame of the growing demand for the immediate departure of the President.… About midday on January 11 he consulted Mr. Rigaud,3 who informed him categorically that he could not choose his own Cabinet but must accept the choice of the Unified Democratic Front and that he could not remain in office until May 15, 1946 but must withdraw immediately and permit the new Cabinet to choose a new President. This ultimatum the President appears to have accepted, with the exception of requesting that a suitable length of time be granted to him to arrange his personal affairs before leaving. Rigaud then left, stating that he would consult his organization.

A short time later I received a telephone call from the President asking me to come to see him. This I did. He described to me at some length his efforts to form a Cabinet, handed me the text of his proposed radio address and asked me whether I would use my good offices with the Unified Democratic Front to permit him to remain a few days in order to arrange his personal affairs. I told him that all this would put me in a rather delicate position, but that I would give it my sympathetic consideration. He promised to send me the names of the persons whom I should consult.

A few minutes before 4:00, three cannon shots were fired from Fort National, announcing the seizure of power by the Military Executive Committee, and a few minutes later Colonel Lavaud4 read a proclamation over the radio, the text of which in original and translation is enclosed.5 This proclamation announces that owing to the inability of the Government to form a new Cabinet and the failure of efforts to restore calm to Haitian life, the General Staff of the Garde asked the President to resign, thereby making him a prisoner. The proclamation then states that the General Staff has formed an Executive [Page 904] Committee to govern the country until new elections can be held. It guarantees all the liberties demanded by the people and assures the security of Haitian and foreign institutions. The streets of Port-au-Prince immediately became a scene of jubilant manifestations, people crying, “Vive Liberté!” and “à bas Lescot!” The presidential flag was hauled down from the National Palace. The crowd was particularly dense before the office of the Chief of Staff, where many officers of the Garde were gathered. The crowd appeared to be friendly to Americans, as I observed during a short tour of the town which I made later in the afternoon.

About 11:00 p.m. on January 11 the Executive Committee, through the intermediary of Major Peterson,7 requested to see me. I received them shortly afterwards at the Residence and conversed with the three officers for about an hour. Colonel Lavaud recounted to me at some length the events of the day and the President’s inability to form a Cabinet. As during the afternoon he received disturbing reports from various parts of the city stating that the situation was getting out of the control of the Garde, he considered it essential in the interests of public peace to inform the President that he must immediately give himself up as a prisoner and leave the country. After some reflection the President consented.

I then talked with him at some length concerning the constitutional aspects of the situation. He frankly acknowledged that an extra-constitutional coup d’état had taken place. I asked him whether it would not have been possible, in view of the absence of a Cabinet, to follow the provisions of Article 39 of the Constitution, which states that the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly can choose a President.8 This he promptly put aside, as he said that the present Assembly was so unpopular that the people would never accept a President selected by the Permanent Committee. In fact, he said, it was the intention of the Military Executive Committee to dissolve the Chambers. This occurred on January 12.

I then asked Colonel Lavaud to describe to me his Committee’s program. He replied that it intended to call popular elections as soon as possible, apparently within about two months, and that the newly elected Congress would choose the new President. In the meantime a military government would exercise control. This would mean, according to Colonel Lavaud, that various military officers would be placed in charge of the various Cabinet portfolios so as to enable the Government to function.

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I asked him whether he believed that his Committee had the support of popular opinion. He pointed out to me the enthusiastic crowds which had appeared in the streets and had given every sign of approval. He announced that all liberties had been restored and that political prisoners had been released. I inquired whether all political groups had given their approval. To this he did not give a wholly affirmative answer, and I gathered that the Unified Democratic Front, copy and translation of whose manifesto is enclosed,9 was not satisfied. I explained to him that I had put these questions to him, as he understood that the question of recognition would immediately arise and explained to him that I could not enter into any formal relations with him except under instructions from my Government. This he appeared to understand and showed no sign of displeasure.

During the last twenty-four hours it has become abundantly apparent that the members of the Unified Democratic Front have not given their support to the Military Committee, and that they have formed a Committee of Public Safety. On the morning of January 12, as I informed the Department in my telegram no. 24 of January 12,9 Dr. Camille Lherisson, a prominent physician of Port-au-Prince, and Mr. Emile Rigaud called upon me and in the name of this Committee of Public Safety demanded that the Department take immediate steps to compel the Military Committee to turn control over to it in order that the latter may rule as a provisional Government. Copy and translation of the Note of the Committee of Public Safety is enclosed,9 which gives me until midday to obtain the intervention of the United States Government, and announces that if this intervention should not be forthcoming, the Committee would not be responsible for future events. I told the gentlemen that in my opinion the proper way to proceed would be for them to approach the Military Committee as responsible and patriotic citizens and endeavor to reach a settlement with the latter, who in my opinion appeared to be equally patriotic. After some difficulty they were persuaded to give their consent and I requested Major Peterson to approach Colonel Lavaud and to ask him, if possible, to grant the interview. The latter willingly gave his consent, which was transmitted to Dr. Lherisson. The latter, however, after some hesitation, gave an evasive answer, stating that in the circumstances he did not consider it necessary any longer to see Colonel Lavaud.

At the time this is written it appears that the position of the Military Committee is becoming stronger, as it has enlisted the support of the students who initiated the strike, the latter issuing radio broadcasts announcing their support of the Committee and asking everyone to [Page 906] return to work on Monday, January 14. The refusal of the Committee to permit any officers serving as Cabinet ministers to accept the ministerial salaries has produced a favorable impression.

As of interest to the Department, I should state that I was consulted on January 12 by Messrs. Williams, Pearson and Waterschoodt of the National Bank, who stated that the Executive Committee had requested the Bank to provide funds on Monday to meet the regular budgetary expenses of the Government. The situation appeared delicate, as the Executive Committee is merely a de facto organization, not as yet having selected a provisional Cabinet. After some consideration, however, they decided that in the interest of stability and peaceful conditions, it would be necessary for the Bank to take the risk and issue the necessary funds to carry on the ordinary business of the country.

During the last twenty-four hours mobs have destroyed the houses of some of the unpopular officials, including the country residence of Gontran Rouzier, who has taken refuge in the Cuban Legation. There has been also a certain amount of pillaging of the shops. The animosity of the people, however, does not appear to be directed against foreigners, except the Syrian shopkeepers, and Americans appear to enjoy the friendly feelings of the people in general.

Respectfully yours,

Orme Wilson
  1. Not printed.
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  4. For excerpt from the annual message of President Roosevelt to the Congress, January 6, 1941, setting forth the “four essential human freedoms”, see Sen. Doc. 123, 81st Cong., 1st sess.: A Decade of American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents, 1941–1949, p. 1.
  5. Georges Rigaud, Minister of Commerce and Agriculture.
  6. Col. Frank Lavaud (Chief of Staff), Chairman of the Military Executive Committee (a Junta of three officers of the Garde). The other members of the Junta were Maj. Paul Magloire (Chief of Palace guard), and Maj. Antoine Levelt (Director of Military School).
  7. Not printed.
  8. Maj. John L. Peterson, Military Attaché.
  9. A penciled marginal note on the original by Mr. Charles C. Hauch of the Division of Caribbean and Central American Affairs reads: “Art 39 Const says that Perm. Committee convokes the Chambers which elect the President. The Committee itself does not elect. CCH”
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