The Coup Connection

How an organization financed by the U.S. government has been promoting the overthrow of elected leaders abroad

In early 2004, chaos overwhelmed Haiti. In January, a rebellion erupted against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former slum priest who had frequently angered the United States with his leftist rhetoric. Aristide had twice been elected, but he had alienated many Haitians with his increasing demagoguery and use of violence against the opposition. Yet polls showed that Aristide remained relatively popular, so even experienced Haiti watchers were surprised when, in late February, armed militias marched on the nation’s capital while demonstrators shut down the streets. In the violence, some 100 Haitians were killed. At dawn on February 29, with the militias closing in, Aristide left Haiti on a U.S. government plane.

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But did the rebellion really spring from nowhere? Maybe not. Several leaders of the demonstrations -- some of whom also had links to the armed rebels -- had been getting organizational help and training from a U.S. government-financed organization. The group, the International Republican Institute (IRI), is supposed to focus on nonpartisan, grassroots democratization efforts overseas. But in Haiti and other countries, such as Venezuela and Cambodia, the institute -- which, though not formally affiliated with the GOP, is run by prominent Republicans and staffed by party insiders -- has increasingly sided with groups seeking the overthrow of elected but flawed leaders who are disliked in Washington.

In 2002 and 2003, IRI used funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to organize numerous political training sessions in the Dominican Republic and Miami for some 600 Haitian leaders. Though IRI’s work is supposed to be nonpartisan -- it is official U.S. policy not to interfere in foreign elections -- a former U.S. diplomat says organizers of the workshops selected only opponents of Aristide and attempted to mold them into a political force.

The trainings were run by IRI’s Haiti program officer, Stanley Lucas, the scion of a powerful Haitian family with long-standing animosity toward Aristide -- Amnesty International says some family members participated in a 1987 peasant massacre. “To have Lucas as your program officer sends a message to archconservatives that you’re on their side,” says Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington, D.C.

IRI’s anti-Aristide focus appeared to have support from the Bush administration. The former U.S. diplomat in Haiti says Lucas was in constant contact with Roger Noriega, the administration’s top Latin America official, who had previously worked for Senator Jesse Helms and had long sought to oust Aristide. Noriega and conservative Republican congressional staffers kept in close touch with IRI-trained opposition leaders and pushed for additional funding for IRI’s Haiti activities. “The USAID director in Haiti was under enormous pressure [from Congress] to fund IRI,” says the former diplomat.

According to an internal report by the USAID inspector general obtained by Mother Jones, in July 2002 the U.S. Embassy in Haiti protested that IRI’s actions were undermining the official U.S. policy of working with all sides in Haiti and that Lucas was spreading unsubstantiated rumors about the U.S. ambassador. In response, USAID barred Lucas from running the IRI program for 120 days. Lucas, according to several observers, threatened to use Bush administration connections to have embassy officials fired. He continued to essentially run the IRI Haiti program while serving as a “translator,” in what IRI officials acknowledged was a violation of USAID’s ban, according to the inspector general’s report.

In 2004, several of the people who had attended IRI trainings were influential in the toppling of Aristide. Among them, according to Kim Ives, a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Progres, was André Apaid, a conservative Haitian politician who had backed a previous anti-Aristide coup in 1991. Apaid became one of the leaders of the Group of 184, which organized the street demonstrations against Aristide. Other members of the group trained in the Dominican Republic were in close contact with the thuggish armed opposition -- participating in rebel meetings, serving as liaisons between the armed groups and foreign embassies, and negotiating for the militia leaders. Among them was Paul Arcelin, a leading member of the opposition who had served as an ambassador under Haiti’s previous military junta. Arcelin told Canadian reporters that he and other opposition leaders frequently met with Guy Philippe, the leader of the armed rebels, to “prepare for Aristide’s downfall.”

When the uprising against Aristide began in late 2003, the White House did little to stop it. In February 2004, as the militias were marching on Port-au-Prince, President Bush issued a statement blaming Aristide for the violence. In late February, the administration urged Aristide to leave Haiti, and on February 29 he was flown into exile in the Central African Republic on a U.S. plane dispatched by the Pentagon. Today, conservative politicians and the military are reinstalling themselves in power, Haiti experts report; the country’s infamous intelligence services are being re-created, and violence against Aristide supporters is commonplace.

Haiti is not unique. In Venezuela, Cambodia, and other nations, IRI—unlike other government-funded democratization groups—has increasingly focused on training opposition parties intent on toppling elected governments. The institute is one of several democracy-promotion groups financed by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); others include the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the AFL-CIO’s international wing. Under their bylaws, the groups are supposed to work with actors across the political spectrum in democracies. In Haiti, for example, NDI, which is controlled by Democrats, worked with members of Aristide’s party as well as opposition parties, and was lauded for its grassroots efforts.

IRI, by contrast, has increasingly come under attack for choosing sides. In Venezuela, the institute dramatically expanded its presence in 2001 and 2002 as President Hugo Chavez ratcheted up his anti-U.S. rhetoric. IRI’s Latin America program was led by Georges Fauriol, who had previously worked at a conservative Washington think tank alongside Otto Reich, who has been Bush’s closest adviser on Latin America policy. Reich, who according to Congress’ Government Accountability Office conducted “prohibited covert propaganda” on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, is a former ambassador to Venezuela who had frequently denounced Chavez.

In Venezuela, IRI staffed its program with Bush allies and campaign supporters; in turn, in 2001 the administration increased funding for IRI’s activities in Venezuela sixfold, from $50,000 to $300,000 -- the largest grant any of NED’s democracy-promotion organizations received that year.

At the time, all the major U.S. democracy-promotion groups were active in Venezuela, including both IRI and NDI. But documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that while NDI worked with parties across the political spectrum, IRI staffers spent much of their time cultivating the opposition. IRI worked closely with Acción Democrática, a group that, IRI’s own documents acknowledge, “refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Chavez presidency.” IRI also tutored opposition figures, including Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña, an outspoken Chavez critic, on how to create a political party. And despite a warning from the National Endowment for Democracy not to take sides in Venezuela, IRI also used its own money to bring opposition figures to Washington, where they met with top U.S. officials.

In April 2002, a group of military officers launched a coup against Chavez, and leaders of several parties trained by IRI joined the junta. When news of the coup emerged, democracy-promotion groups in Venezuela were holding a meeting to discuss ways of working together to avoid political violence; IRI representatives didn’t attend, saying that they were drafting a statement on Chavez’s overthrow. On April 12, the institute’s Venezuela office released a statement praising the “bravery” of the junta and “commending the patriotism of the Venezuelan military.”

That drew a sharply worded email from NED president Carl Gershman, a copy of which was obtained by Mother Jones. Gershman wrote: “By welcoming [the coup] -- indeed, without any apparent reservations—you unnecessarily interjected IRI into the sensitive internal politics of Venezuela.”

At roughly the same time that IRI issued its statement, Reich announced that Chavez had resigned -- though he had not -- and said the United States would support the new government in Venezuela. But within a day, Chavez was restored to power by popular demonstrations, the presidential guard, and segments of the army. At least 40 people were killed in the violence surrounding the coup.

IRI’s selective approach to democracy-building has also been in evidence in Cambodia, where it has thrown its support behind the Sam Rainsy Party, an opposition group led by a former banker who is popular in conservative Washington circles. Institute staff members have written speeches and managed campaigns for Rainsy, according to several sources. “IRI people were part of the [Rainsy] machine,” says one human rights expert who focuses on Cambodia.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, like Chavez and Aristide, is no saint. He has been linked to political violence and has little respect for civil liberties. “In some ways, IRI [is] leveling the playing field,” says the Cambodia expert. Similarly, in Haiti, says another observer, there was a legitimate need to help the opposition organize because Aristide was becoming so abusive of his power.

Yet IRI’s singular focus on groups seeking to overthrow leaders seen as hostile to the United States can sometimes harm American diplomatic efforts. In Cambodia, notes one official with considerable experience in the country, “it hurt the U.S. government’s credibility as an honest broker in the election processes.” In Haiti, IRI has had a similar impact, experts say, by unbalancing an already volatile situation and causing people to wonder what the United States’ true agenda was. In 2003, after being threatened by IRI’s Stanley Lucas, the departing U.S. ambassador, Brian Dean Curran, gave a farewell speech to the Haitian chamber of commerce. “There are many in Haiti who prefer not to listen to me,” he said, “but to their own friends in Washington—the sirens of extremism.” Then he added, using the Haitian word for “thugs”: “I call them the chimères of Washington.”