Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XXIII, Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean
270. Airgram From the Embassy in Haiti to the Department of State1
- Ambassador’s Meeting With President Duvalier
Enclosed for distribution is the full Memorandum of Conversation of the meeting between President Duvalier and Ambassador Kimelman which took place on December 12, 1980 in Port-au-Prince.
Memorandum of Conversation2
- Jean-Claude Duvalier, President of the Republic of Haiti
- Ambassador Henry L. Kimelman, American Embassy, Port-au-Prince
- Michele Duvalier, Interpreter
The long-awaited bilateral with President Duvalier was held in the informal atmosphere of Villa d’Accueil, the GOH’s guest residence. It was originally scheduled for the day before upon my insistence that a meeting be held as soon as possible. (The President’s secretary had called to state that the President was very busy and preferred to delay the meeting to December 18–19.) Henri Bayard, the Minister to the President, telephoned me the morning of the December 11 appointment to advise that the President was ill and to advise that the meeting would be held at the same time and place the following day. Embassy faced this planned meeting with great trepidation, in view of recent events in Haiti and because of the talking points suggested by Ambassador Bowdler, DAS Bushnell, ARA/CAR Director Warne, HA, etc.3 We at the Embassy believed that the President was not overly enthusiastic about meeting with Ambassador at this point in time. We presumed also that he expected the Ambassador to arrive “loaded for bear”.
The sensitivity of the problem was accentuated in our opinion by the following statement which appeared in the New York Sunday Times Week in Review section of December 7: Report by Transition Team—Ambassadors “are not supposed to function as social reformers.” Human rights considerations should not be allowed to “paralyze or unduly delay decisions on issues” where they “conflict with other vital U.S. interests.” We had to assume that the President was aware [Page 645] of this statement as well as Ambassador Robert White’s criticism of the transition team, page 1, New York Times, December 10.4
As a consequence, a considerable amount of time was spent with various Country Team members and specifically A/DCM, POLOFF,5 and Consul in preparing an effective strategy for this meeting. My past experience in government, politics and the private sector, has taught me to always try and place myself in the position of the other person involved in any negotiation or controversy. I was therefore of the opinion that it was conceivable that the President could greet me and in his own way quote from the statement that appeared in the New York Sunday Times. He then might have added that human rights considerations should not be allowed to paralyze the decision he made to prevent a potential Communist takeover. He believed that new administration would undoubtedly agree with him that such a takeover conflicted with vital U.S. interests which would have left me with nothing to talk about.
I, therefore, came to the conclusion that the best approach to President Duvalier in the hopes of accomplishing our demarche was to hopefully create a friendly atmosphere similar to my first meeting at the same location (see MemCon October 26, 1980)6 and specifically to build his confidence. On a plan devised and concurred with by ECONOFF7 and POLOFF, Consul and other Country Team members and with my conviction that Mme. Duvalier would be the interpreter, I opened our talk by thanking them for their invitation to dinner the following Tuesday evening and by notifying them that my daughter-in-law had last week presented my wife and I with a new and lovely grand-daughter. They congratulated me and we spent a few minutes on discussion of family, grandchildren, etc. I then related to the President an incident that occurred about half an hour before our meeting. A Danish businessman who had lived in Haiti for three years (1976–79) had come to my office to tell me how upset he was concerning the bad publicity he had recently read in the foreign press about Haiti. He stated that he lived in Port-au-Prince for three years by choice. He took that decision because he believed Haiti was the safest place in Central America to raise his children and that he felt comfortable leaving his wife and children while he was away on frequent trips of three and [Page 646] four weeks duration. I then complimented the President on his past overall program of democratization and advised him that in conversation with six or seven other chiefs of mission they had unanimously concurred that he was committed to helping his people and his country. This obviously pleased him. I informed him that the German Ambassador had told me at a meeting in his office on November 20 (prior to “Black Friday”)8 that Bonn’s chief Public Affairs Officer had recently traveled Central America and returned to Port-au-Prince to advise the Ambassador that Haiti had the most open press of the sixteen or seventeen countries he had visited. This brought a smile of approval to the President’s face.
The general atmosphere was warm and cordial with the three of us enjoying an excellent rum punch while seated very comfortably on a lovely open terrace overlooking the harbor of Port-au-Prince. He was much more relaxed than I expected. Comment: I reached the conclusion that it would be in our interests and the President’s interests for all subsequent meetings with the President to be held in the atmosphere of Villa d’Accueil rather than the very formal and stark atmosphere of his Presidential office where he usually sits very stiff and formal behind a desk. End Comment.
After this approximately 15–18 minute tour d’horizon I said, “Mr. President, my government would like to know why you felt it necessary to take the action you did on November 28.” I settled in my armchair and said, “Mr. President, the U.S. Government is deeply distressed by the action you took on November 28 to silence opposition critics and free expression of opinion. You are aware, Mr. President, that this action has proven extremely damaging to Haiti’s international reputation.” Before he replied I inquired if he had any objection to my making notes of his response. I explained that I wanted to make certain that I reported his comments accurately to my government. He nodded his agreement. He then proceeded to relate a chronicle of events going back to 1971. Soon after he became President in 1971 he publicly invited all exiles, independents and other opposition leaders who had left the country to return to Haiti. He made it clear that they would not be imprisoned or arrested. Many returned. The purpose of his invitation, he said, was to obtain their cooperation and assistance in solving Haiti’s economic and developmental problems. He recalled incidents during 1972, 1973 and 1974 in which he met with many of those who had returned and his consistent program of solicitation of their cooperation for the benefit [Page 647] of Haiti. However, during these years none of these individuals or the groups they represented had offered constructive advice and in the main in whatever forum was available to them criticized both him and the government. Some time during 1974 or 1975 he called a group of them to the Palace to see if he could solicit their cooperation for the benefit of the people of Haiti. He said that the group interpreted this as a sign of weakness. He stated that none of these individuals or groups respected the office of the Presidency nor the institutions of the country. Their only aim, he said, was to destabilize the government and to remove him from power. At this point I inquired as to whether he was of the opinion that this antagonism was due to the fact that his name was “Duvalier”. Unstated by me but obvious by inference was the fact that he had inherited his father’s mantle and reputation. After deliberating a moment or two and exchanging glances with Michele he surprisingly to me replied that he thought not. He indicated that these individuals and groups were at best self-serving and were interested only in their accession to power. Michele added with a broad grin that each and every one wanted to be President. He named specifically as leaders Sylvio Claude, Jean-Jacques Honorat, Gregoire Eugene and included the press (I presume he meant all communications media) as an additional key group. He noted that although these groups functioned separately and had diverse interests they had from time to time joined together in concerted effort to destabilize and/or overthrow the government. He reiterated what Michele had said earlier that none of those involved had any genuine interest in Haitian people but were primarily motivated by their own personal ambition. If they were successful in achieving their objectives the process of democratization and liberalization that he had started in Haiti would be halted. At this point in time, approximately fifteen or twenty minutes into his dialogue, he brought up as the said goal of this group Haiti’s drift toward Socialism and eventually Communism. This, he said, he could not and would not tolerate as being in the best interests of his people. He added that it would also not be in the best interests of the United States.
He felt it necessary to take action on November 28 after carefully considering all the consequences. He stressed that if he had not acted to disrupt this conspiracy to destabilize, Haiti would be faced with critical choices, if not immediately certainly in the near future. He was aware that the arrests may have only postponed the threat of what he referred to as “a Communist conspiracy” and said the possibility of its resurfacing, probably within the next year or two, was still his major concern. He referred to the “brains” behind these activities as members of the international Communist party and a French-dominated and Communist-inspired labor organization. The principal players (where this plot to destabilize was conceived) were from Venezuela and Bel[Page 648]gium, the latter a combination of Haitian exiles and international Communists resident in Belgium. I interjected at this point to advise that at simultaneous meetings yesterday ECONOFF and I with Minister to the Presidency Bayard,9 and POLOFF with Colonel Valme, Chief of Police, the former had said that the plot was hatched in Belgium and the latter in Venezuela.10 A shy smile crossed the President’s face and he replied “I do not confide ‛everything’ to my key people. Be assured, Mr. Ambassador, that it was from both countries, although I probably told Bayard Belgium and Valme Venezuela.” He said he had evidence that forces in both Cuba and Nicaragua were also deeply involved. He said that he was convinced that the threat was real and that the climax to their planned activities was to occur somewhere between December 5 and December 15. He emphasized the dates as being important by saying that these leftist groups felt their opportunities for destabilization would be reduced after the Reagan administration took office on January 20. He quickly pointed out, however, that he wanted our government to know that his response had nothing to do with the American election. In other words, if the time-frame had been the same he would have taken the same action if President Carter had been reelected.
After he completed this lengthy discourse I advised the President that my government had instructed me to raise specific questions as outlined in Confidential Memorandum from Assistant Secretary Bowdler, dated December 6. I then took up the matter of Haiti’s image and advised him that it had suffered great damage in the United States because of this action and that it would take considerable time for the damage done to be reversed. The GOH action had provided fresh ammunition to those groups in the U.S. who believed that Haiti could do nothing right and had deprived friends of Haiti of the ability to defend his stated commitment toward democratization and liberalization. He indicated that he was fully aware of these consequences but reiterated that under the circumstances he had no alternative. In a sense of resignation and with some bitterness he said that Haiti would always have a poor public image in the United States no matter what it did. He also noted that the U.S. and other countries criticized Haiti specifically in the area of human rights more than they did other countries whose human rights record was far worse. I recall him men[Page 649]tioning Argentinia but implied if not actually stated were Nicaragua and El Salvador. I then queried him as to whether the purge was over, noting again the conflict between Bayard’s statement that it was “one hundred percent under control” and Valme who told POLOFF that he knew who the key organizers were since he had them under surveillance for the past three years and that he was going to “get them”.
The President then emphatically stated that he was the President and that Valme takes his orders from him. He then informed me that the purge was over for the time being. I asked how many people had been arrested and how many remained in jail. He replied that approximately 45 had been arrested and that “not even ten people” remained in jail. I then queried as to why those people have not been charged and if not, why have they not been released? I was prepared to receive the reply Minister Bayard had given us at our meeting yesterday which was that the “Duvalier law” was very strict on Communists and that if charged and found guilty they would be condemned to death. The President hesitated in replying for amost a full minute, obviously thinking and then said that those remaining in jail would be released within a few days and would be expelled from the country. I inquired as to whether they had exit visas and he said he did not know. He admitted that he had not yet determined as to how he would get rid of these people but that he would send them to countries which would receive them. He then told me that Dr. Titus had been released the previous day for humanitarian reasons even though the GOH had evidence that he had been a member of the Communist party for at least ten years. In interpreting this comment Michele sought his approval for a correction to “fifteen years” rather than “ten”.
To my question as to whether any of those arrested had been beaten, he smiled, looked me right in the eye and said perhaps two or three. Michele in translation offered that they had been “spanked a bit” but not really harmed. I raised the question of whether any harm would come to members of the immediate families, husbands, wives, children, of those detained and expelled and they both reacted with a look of amazement. He assured me as did Michele in a very careful translation that no harm would come to any members of the families of those arrested and subsequently released or expelled.
I then inquired about Colonel Valme’s statement to POLOFF at their meeting yesterday that not only would the roundup continue but would probably include the arresting of some priests and nuns. I was most emphatic in stating that such action on the part of the GOH would be catastrophic—particularly in light of recent events in El Salvador. My comment was made primarily to caution him before the fact of the extent of the damage that could be created in the GOH/US relationship by such action. He responded by saying that there would be no further [Page 650] arrests. He repeated that he was the President and was in control of the situation.
I advised him that the credibility of his commitment to democratization and liberalization had suffered a grave setback by these recent actions. He assured me that despite recent events he was committed and would continue to be committed to a program of democratization of his country. He stated however that it was important for the U.S. to understand that the situation in Haiti is considerably different than that in the U.S. His people are uneducated, illiterate and in the main underfed and hungry. He made it clear that while he is willing to tolerate opposition, governing Haiti is far different than governing the U.S. and that the brand of democracy achieved for Haiti, even at its ultimate goal, would be different than the kind of democracy the U.S. enjoys.
I inquired as to his plans for Jean Dominique, (Director of Radio Haiti Inter) a leading figure who reportedly remains in asylum in the Venezuela Embassy residence. I advised him of the discrepancy that existed in the statements of Bayard and Valme (aforesaid meetings yesterday). Bayard had told us that Jean Dominique was a personal friend of his but that he was misguided, close to Manley in Jamaica and that at minimum a Socialist and probably a Communist. However, Bayard assured ECONOFF and I that Dominique would be free to leave the country. Valme indicated otherwise to POLOFF. He again hesitated for perhaps a half minute and then replied that Dominique would be free to leave the country. He reiterated that all of “these people”, including Dominique, were involved in the conspiracy. He inferred that he had the facts from his own intelligence agents and in searching for the right words to describe his agents’ activities Michele interjected and said, “like your CIA”. Again, he repeated that he was forced to act when and how he had.
I advised the President that I had been involved in politics in the United States for almost twenty years and would be pleased to offer some of my observations of our electoral process if he were interested. He nodded and I proceeded to explain that candidates of both major political parties in the U.S. campaign across a wide spectrum from left to right and I held out both hands to make the point. I explained that many candidates often campaign with a rhetoric that differs from the reality they face after being elected to office. This also applies to the U.S. presidency. While still holding my hands out I explained that Carter had campaigned in 1976 from a position to the left of center but that once elected he moved gradually and over a period of time closer to the center and moderated many of his positions. As a Chief of State I added that he better than most could understand the compromises that are forced by the responsibilities of office. I explained that [Page 651] President-elect Reagan had begun his campaign from a position to the far right, using my outstretched right arm to make this point, but that in the waning days of the campaign as the election drew near he began to moderate his position. I told the President that it was my opinion that once in office President Reagan would moderate even further and that perhaps while he might be somewhat right of center he, like President Carter, would move closer to center. To emphasize my point I held both hands out in front of me approximately three or four inches apart with the imaginary line in between representing the center. I continued by saying that concern for human welfare (human rights) did not begin with the Carter administration. I advised the President that I had with me a summary of human rights legislation which I then handed to Michele. I suggested that he might want to turn this material over to his Department of Justice officials for analysis. Basically the point which I believe was made was that the Government of Haiti should not expect a sharp reversal in the U.S. Government’s concern and position on human rights.
Before closing we discussed ways of improving Haiti’s public image in the United States. Embassy officials had come to the conclusion that the removal from office of FM Salomon, FinMin Bros and Ambassador Charles at this time would not be in the best interests of the GOH. We discussed the different methods of introducing this subject without having it seem that we were attempting to interfere in the internal politics of the GOH. This conversation on ways to improve the image of the GOH in the United States provided the opportunity I was looking for. I told the President about the TV interview I gave in Miami to the CBS affiliate station. We had positive comments from individuals who saw the interview. I advised the President that I was hopeful of getting a video recording which I would deliver to him for his viewing. The trend of discussion provided me with an opportunity to suggest that he had available in his government people of stature whom I believe would be very effective representatives for the GOH on radio, TV talk shows and in interviews with journalists. I specifically mentioned FM Georges Salomon and Ambassador Charles, both of whom are highly regarded and respected in the United States. Both seemed interested. I suggested that in my opinion it should be relatively easy to arrange TV and radio appearances with prominent talk-show hosts and interviews with journalists who are anxious to know more about Haiti. I did, however, raise the specter of possible adverse press if not handled delicately by representatives sophisticated and knowledgeable with some experience in dealing with the communications media.
COMMENT: The major question with possible long-range ramifications for our bilateral relations is: “Does Jean-Claude believe what he said or is he trying to lead the USG down the primrose path?” Secondly, [Page 652] and more important is the question as to whether Jean-Claude is really in charge; by this I mean is he his own man or is he, as is the common perception, really reflecting the advice and opinions of the last person he has talked to? This latter question is the more difficult one to answer. I believe, based on the dialogue of our past meetings including this one and the nature of the relationship we have established, that Jean-Claude was convinced that the conspiracy threat was real; not as imminent as he may have indicated, but yet real. It is possible, however, that he overstated the nature of the threat because of the still lingering effect of older and more mature men advising him, i.e., no one has to remind him that he inherited the Presidency and did not earn it. I believe he is aware of this almost 24 hours every day and perhaps for that reason and his own intellectual insecurities, he tends to rely on or give more credence to the advice of older and more experienced advisors.
From information we have been able to obtain, Minister to the Presidency Bayard, Minister of Youth and Sports Achille, and Minister of Information Chanoine emerge as the key figures in instigating activities which led to “Black Friday” decision. Our information indicates this factor to be beyond any reasonable doubt. (FYI Achille was brought into government by Private Secretary to the President Douyon. We are advised that he has now emerged as a strong figure, is very ambitious and on reliable information, seeks the position of Minister of Defense and Interior. End FYI.) Both Achille and Chanoine are relatively young (late-30’s); Bayard is in his mid-50’s. Important to note also is that the private sector, from all the information we have been able to gather, supported the President’s “Black Friday” move. They were extremely concerned about labor unrest and possible Communist takeover and/or influence of local labor union and/or the introduction of an internationally-led “Communist-inspired movement.” Achille and Chanoine appear to be emerging as representatives or lobbyists for this private sector group. They are being identified as the “new right.” I am advised that Douyon, while still personally close to the President, is now considered to be, by the President and others, in the liberal group with Foreign Minister Salomon and Charles.
Is Jean-Claude in charge? This is obviously more difficult to assess. It is my opinion that he is certainly more in charge than he was perceived to be a year or two ago. In other words, the pattern of his leadership, while still not dominant, is strengthening. I believe that he, despite an introverted personality, which in itself plays a role in the quality of leadership, will gradually exert more control and continue to take a stronger leadership role. In analyzing my feelings, I believe that Michele is a strong personality. Over the past six months she has been instrumental in influencing him to take more decisions on his [Page 653] own. As reported in this MemCon he mentioned at least three or four times that he was in charge and that Valme, Bayard, etc. took their orders from him.
It is my belief as well as that of those of other Ambassadors I have spoken to and senior Embassy officials, that he genuinely wants to improve his country. The problem is, does he know how and can he accomplish it? He talks about democratization and being committed to it. He points out however the differences that exist between achieving democracy in a country like the U.S. and one like Haiti. The question remains, can he achieve this goal while stifling press criticism and by further “Black Friday” endeavors? The two obviously are inconsistent. He knows it but has not resolved it. There is no question that he is concerned about his image in the U.S. and most assuredly in the long run does not want to displease the USG if he can help it. He realized the long-range ramifications of recent events. I believe, however, that our interests are not well-served by constantly dangling AID assistance on a “yoyo” in front of the President and his government.
We are aware that the above does not provide a clear-cut answer to Jean-Claude and the future of Haiti. It is still our belief, however, that the strategy outlined in our cable (PAP 5849)11 remains applicable.
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P800168–0110. Confidential; Exdis.↩
- Confidential; Exdis. Drafted by Kimelman on December 15. The meeting was held at Villa d’Accueil.↩
- In telegram 6211 from Port au Prince, the Embassy noted that the talking points were transmitted in a December 6 memorandum. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]) The memorandum was not found.↩
- The article reported Ambassador White’s charges that he was being undercut by a report by the Reagan transition team that urged a reduction in the influence of human rights advocates in the Department of State. (“U.S. Envoy in Salvador Charges Reagan Team Is Undercutting Him,” The New York Times, December 10, p. A1)↩
- Alf E. Bergesen and Ints Silins.↩
- Not found.↩
- John B. Craig.↩
- See footnote 2, Document 269. In telegram 6009 from Port au Prince, December 2, the Embassy noted the crackdown on dissidents coincided with a German promise of “continued, even amplified technical and capital assistance.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800575–0385)↩
- In telegram 6039 from Port au Prince, December 11, the Embassy reported that Bayard had claimed the crackdown on dissidents occurred in order to mollify rightist elements in the government, so a proposed “liberalization program” could be carried out. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800590–0078)↩
- In telegram 6176 from Port au Prince, December 11, the Embassy reported that Valme had claimed that the crackdown on dissidents was a response to a “Communist plot.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File D800590–0923)↩
- In telegram 5849 from Port au Prince, November 21, the Embassy reviewed its policy toward Haiti, stating, “Haiti is vulnerable to external pressures which could stimulate drastic and potentially leftist political changes within the country,” adding, “In terms of human rights, the regime has made progress and continues to do so; nevertheless, we will continue to stress the need for moderate political change. On a scale of zero to ten, with the higher number representing an ideal, the average estimate of Country Team places Haiti at present at four.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800558–0650)↩