NEW YORK — If the circumstances weren't so calamitous, the US-orchestrated removal of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti would be farcical. According to Mr. Aristide, US officials in Port-au-Prince told him that rebels were on the way to the presidential residence and that he and his family were unlikely to survive unless they immediately boarded an American-chartered plane standing by to take them to exile. The US made it clear, he said, that it would provide no protection for him at the official residence, despite the ease with which this could have been arranged.
Indeed, says Aristide's lawyer, the US blocked reinforcement of Aristide's own security detail and refused him entry to the airplane until he signed a letter of resignation.
Then Aristide was denied access to a phone for nearly 24 hours and knew nothing of his destination until he was summarily deposited in the Central African Republic. But this Keystone Kops coup has apparently not worked entirely according to plan: Aristide used a cellphone to notify the world that he was forcibly removed from Haiti. The US dismisses Aristide's charges as ridiculous. Secretary of State Colin Powell's official version of the events is a blanket denial based on the government's word alone. In essence, Washington is telling us not to look back, only forward. This stonewalling brings to mind Groucho Marx's old line, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"
There are several tragedies in this surrealistic episode. The first is the apparent incapacity of the US to speak honestly about such matters as toppling governments. Instead, it brushes aside crucial questions: Did the US summarily deny military protection to Aristide? Did the US supply weapons to the rebels, who showed up in Haiti last month with sophisticated equipment that last year reportedly had been taken by the US military to the Dominican Republic, next door to Haiti? Why did the US abandon the call of European and Caribbean leaders for a political compromise, a compromise that Aristide had already accepted? Most important, did the US bankroll a coup in Haiti, a scenario that, based on the evidence, seems likely?
Only someone ignorant of American history and of the administrations of the elder and younger George Bushes would dismiss these questions. The US has repeatedly sponsored coups and uprisings in Haiti and in neighboring Caribbean countries. The most recent previous episode in Haiti came in 1991, during the first Bush administration, when thugs on the CIA payroll were among the leaders of paramilitary groups that toppled Aristide after his 1990 election.
Some of the players in the current round are familiar from the previous Bush administration. Also key is US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega - a longtime Aristide-basher - widely thought to have been central to the departure of Aristide. He'll find it much harder to engineer the departure of gun-toting rebels.
In 1991, when Congressional Black Caucus members demanded an investigation into the US role in Aristide's overthrow, the first Bush administration laughed them off, just as the administration is doing today in facing new queries from caucus members.
Indeed, those questioning the administration about Haiti are being smeared as naive and unpatriotic. Aristide himself is being accused of dereliction in the failure to lift his country out of poverty. In point of fact, this administration froze all multilateral development assistance to Haiti from the day that George W. Bush came into office, squeezing Haiti's economy dry. US officials surely knew that the aid embargo would mean a crisis in the balance of payments, a rise in inflation, and a collapse of living standards, all of which fed the rebellion.
Another tragedy in this episode is the silence of the media when it comes to asking all the questions that need answers. Just as in the war on Iraq's phony WMD, wherein the mainstream media initially failed to ask questions about the administration's claims, major news organizations have refused to challenge the administration's accounts on Haiti. The media haven't had the gumption to find Aristide, or even to point out that he is being held incommunicado.
With a violence-prone US government operating with impunity in many parts of the world, only the public's perseverance in getting at the truth can save us, and others, from our own worst behavior.
• Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is a former economic adviser to Latin American governments. This commentary originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. ©2004 The Los Angeles Times.