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25 Years After ‘Operation Uphold Democracy,’ Experts Say the Oft-Forgotten U.S. Military Intervention Still Shapes Life in Haiti

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As U.S. troops landed in Haiti on Sept. 19, 1994, they were welcomed by a large enthusiastic crowd at the port of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. It was a moment of euphoria for Haitians who hoped for change after three years of instability at the hands of a military junta.

“There’s a whole sea of Haitians looking into their [the American soldiers] eyes, just glad that they’re here,” a source told TIME in 1994.

The intervention, known as “Operation Uphold Democracy,” was billed as a success by Clinton Administration officials and made headlines in 1994. Twenty-five years later, it has been all but forgotten by many Americans — but scholars say that this moment in history still holds an important lesson.

Behind the Intervention

The winter of 1990 marked a historic moment for Haiti, as Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president with an overwhelming majority in the nation’s first-ever democratic presidential election.

Aristide promised change and challenged the elites. However, the hope he and his government represented was cut short by a military coup, led by Raoul Cédras in 1991. The coup, which started after Haiti’s civilian and military elite rejected the new policies, forced Aristide into exile just seven months after the presidential elections.

The military junta led what U.S. President Bill Clinton called a reign of terror, raping civilians and killing around 5,000 Aristide supporters over the next three years. Then, in April 1994, paramilitaries in a group led in part by Louis-Jodel Chamblain murdered at least 15 supporters of Aristide. Many of the victims were “tortured and made to lay in open sewers before being shot,” TIME later reported.

Back in the U.S., the Congressional Black Caucus had been pushing President Bill Clinton to intervene, but he was wary of doing so. Less than a year earlier, in October 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in the Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia during a peacekeeping mission, and humanitarian crises were also ongoing in Bosnia and Rwanda. But in light of the atrocities, Clinton in 1994 decided that the time had come. During the President’s Radio Address on Sept. 17, 1994, he spoke of America’s interest in helping to “restore democratic government in Haiti.” Attempts to make change via diplomacy had failed. “The dictators rejected all of our efforts, and their reign of terror, a campaign of murder, rape, and mutilation, gets worse with every passing day,” he said. “Now we must act.”

Clinton told the public during his address that he had sent former President Carter, Gen. Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn to Haiti that morning in a last ditch attempt to “provide a peaceful, orderly transfer of power.”

But the junta’s leaders didn’t believe the U.S. would actually invade, says Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born historian who is now a professor in political science at the University of Virginia. One reason for that belief, he says, was that at least one key member of the junta was on the CIA payroll in order to feed the CIA intelligence of the situation in Haiti. Emmanuel Constant was the leader of one of the “death squads” that went after Aristide’s supporters in Haiti during the military coup. Washington officials confirmed that he was on the American intelligence payroll after the coup ousted President Aristide, TIME reported in 1994.

“They believed that they were immune and that Clinton was playing politics, and that they could stay in power and eventually things would be resolved without the return of Aristide,” says Fatton. “After all, they were on the payroll of the CIA. How do you negotiate with people who are actually being paid by the people who want the change?”

The junta’s leaders at first refused the diplomatic negotiation efforts. “But then Clinton gave the order [for the military intervention],” Fatton says. “This is when Colin Powell turned to junta leaders and said ‘The troops are coming, the planes are up.’”

On Sept. 19, the U.S. military arrived in Haiti. The force numbered nearly 25,000 military personnel from all services.

The move worked, and the junta backed down. President Aristide was restored back to power by U.S. forces during what was called Operation Uphold Democracy.

James Dobbins, who was U.S. Special Envoy at the time, was on the plane with President Aristide as he was brought back to power. “Seeing the ecstatic crowds greet him at the airport and then going to the reception at the Presidential Palace where Aristide gave a speech, it was certainly quite impressive,” Dobbins tells TIME.

The Meaning of Success

The intervention was intended to remove the military junta, restore President Aristide to power and ultimately transform Haiti into a democracy. While the U.S. was successful in the former two goals, experts say the rest is more complicated.

“The intervention in Haiti was a short-lived success,” says Dobbins. “It achieved all of its objectives with no casualties within a very short time-frame. But it didn’t take hold. Haiti illustrated that these things take a long time — they don’t transform a society overnight.”

Indeed, the U.S. led a new international intervention ten years later in 2004 when President Aristide’s government was again overthrown.

Fatton is even more critical. “If you look at the operation now with hindsight, you can say that it was a major failure — it didn’t change Haiti, it didn’t democratize Haiti. If anything, the situation now is probably more catastrophic than it was in the mid-1990s… It was a euphoric moment, which ended in disaster.”

In fact, Fatton argues that the 1994 operation was a key contributor to many of the problems that now endure in Haiti. American support for Aristide’s return was contingent on his sighing an agreement with the IMF and the World Bank, which bound him to their structural adjustment policies, which opened up Haiti’s market to foreign trade with the result that Haiti had to import most of their food. Haiti’s elite, despite having to face a U.S. embargo during the military junta rule and having their wealth frozen by the U.S., still had a lot of economic power after Aristide’s return. The reformist and radical programs he had planned fell apart.

“[After the intervention], Haiti became a country dependent on international financial organizations for its funding, its budget — it was and still is at the mercy of what the international community is willing to give,” Fatton says.

Lessons can and have been learned since Operation Uphold Democracy, argues Dobbins. “The main lesson we learned from Haiti was the limitations of these kinds of interventions and what you could expect to achieve. And to learn that the transformations would only be partial and would take a long time,” he says.

Fatton says he believes that because the fact that there were no American lives lost in the operation, it was easy for the U.S. to call it a success and move on — but such is not the case for Haitians. Haiti now makes headlines for being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, for corruption and the failures of its government, and for being subject to President Trump’s vulgar dismissal. But, Fatton argues, it’s not possible to understand the current situation without remembering the history of Haiti.

“There is ‘Haiti fatigue’ so people don’t really think about it,” he says. “Haitians remember it, but abroad? No one really pays attention anymore.”

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