Why did the US decide to invade Haiti in 1994?

On September 19th, 1994, the US started the operation “Uphold Democracy” in Haiti, which aimed to restore Jean Bertrand Aristide back to power. Aristide had been in exile since after the coup staged by the Haitian army on September 30th, 1991. The coup was masterminded by General Cédras whom Aristide had appointed as chief of the army. Since then, Cédras ruled as de-facto dictator, and remained the most influential person in Haiti. His regime was among the most violent in the Americas and repressed Aristide’s partisans; roughly 5,000 citizens were murdered, migration on sailboats toward the US intensified, and hundreds of women were raped by the military (Rey Terry: 74). The American senator Christopher Dodd claimed that: “Human rights abuses are worse than under the days of Papa Doc Duvalier” (Ralph Pezzullo: 252). Haiti’s economy was also looted: The military junta enriched itself through drug dealing and smuggling (Girard, P. R: 129); Cédras and his Generals accumulated $ 79 million (Douglas Jehl) while Haiti’s income per capita decreased by 30% (Elizabeth Gibbons).

Cedras VS Clinton.jpg

In response to the regime’s atrocities, the US and the UN in concert with Aristide worked exhaustively to undermine Cédras. Assets of Haitian officials in the US were frozen; foreign aid was prohibited; and an economic embargo was imposed, limiting Haiti in its exports, imports, and oil shipments (Gibbons E. et al: 1).  Furthermore, the UN forced Cédras to sign an agreement at Governors Island, whereby he pledged to peacefully relinquish power by October 30th, 1994. But, Cédras refused to leave when the day came, which prompted the International community to intensify their pressure. Live on TV in 1994, Bill Clinton unsparingly condemned Cédras of human right abuses and left a blunt ultimatum: “your time is up; leave now, or we will force you from power.” Then, Cédras resigned and went to exile in Panama. Shortly after, deposed President Aristide was reinstated on October 15th, and the UN sanctions were lifted.

Why did Cédras decide to step down and negotiate with the US? And why did the US decide to pressure him? To understand this outcome, a background of the US’s and Cédras’s interests will be presented, and the same outcome will be predicted through a Game Theory model.

The US’s motives
The US had two main motives for overthrowing Cédras. The first was to stop the migration waves of Haitians toward their shores. After the coup, Haitians fled repression and poverty by intensively sailing to Florida. The US Coast Guard seized 6,013 migrants by November 1991 and 13053 by May 1992 (Ralph Pezzullo: 246). Bill Clinton was concerned with this influx of refugees. According to Clinton, 300,000 Haitians who were in hiding might also migrate to the US, which could disrupt the American economy. “We must act” announced Bill Clinton.

The second motive was to uphold democracy. Typically, American leaders believe in Democratic Peace Theory, which states that democratic regimes are less prone to fight with one another. Thus having more democratic countries strengthens America’s peace and security. Aristide was the first president elected democratically since Haiti’s independence, but Cédras established a repressive military dictatorship after ousting him. Therefore, replacing the latter by the former was more attractive to the US. Clinton stated that Cédras was not only responsible for economic decay of Haiti, but also the murder and rape of his own people. “Restoring Haiti’s democratic government will help lead to more stability and prosperity in our region” Clinton stressed.

Avoiding international blame or war was a concern of the US. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and invading it without the UN’s backing could have been interpreted as an “unfriendly act”. Thanks to the UN Security Council Resolution 940 on the 15th July 1994, the US was authorized to use all necessary means, including force, to restore democracy in Haiti. However, the invasion could have caused a massacre in Haiti due to its weak army. Unwilling to be held responsible for that, the US did not want a war with Haiti. The purpose was merely to deter Cédras and force him to negotiate. “They do not have to push this to a confrontation,” said Clinton.

In sum, the US had good motives to remove Cédras and restore Aristide. However, Clinton’s ultimatum to Cédras was merely to make him surrender, but not to wage a war. Fighting with Haiti would have caused an international outcry.

Cédras’s motives
Cédras’s paramount motive was to remain in power. He showed his willingness to fight in his first reaction to Clinton: “We are going to fight. A solution cannot be imposed on this country” (Rohter Larry). So did Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1964 when Kennedy threatened to invade Haiti; he resisted and threatened also to fight (Wien Weibert: 327). Both Papa Doc and Cédras did not really want war; their firm stances were merely to dissuade the invaders and maintained their power. Kennedy defected, but Clinton did not, which prompted Cédras to give up and preserve his life, and his assets.

Cédras was preoccupied about his survival and his honor. First, the army was divided, and some soldiers threatened to overthrow him. It was until Cédras’s henchman, General Philippe Biamby, convinced them that there would not be any invasion that they gave up (Abbott Elizabeth: 369). Furthermore, in case of war Cédras could have easily been killed: He was more a bureaucrat than a field soldier (Rohter Larry), and he was not popular in Haiti. The coup that prompted him to power was an act of betrayal against Aristide whom the people considered as their savior. Haitians have never forgiven him for that. That is to say, he ran the risk of being killed by Aristide’s partisans. Even if he survived the war, he would have still faced rape, homicide, and corruption charges, which would have hurt his pride. During an interview with CBS, he declared that he would rather die than leave in dishonor (Rohter Larry). His wife Yannick, who many believed to have great authority on him, was also a proud person. Elizabeth Abbott, in her wonderful book, said that Yannick would prefer to have her family dead before yielding to the invaders (Abbott Elzabeth: 369).

Cédras valued also his assets. He accumulated millions during his reign (Freed, K). But due to the UN sanctions, his money, deposed in American banks, was frozen. His only hope to regain it was to negotiate with the Americans. Cédras also possesses 3 houses in Port-au-Prince (Douglas Jehl), which could have been burnt by mobs during war. That’s a typical Haitian behavior, which Cédras was mindful of.

In sum, Cédras’s regime was vulnerable. He received pressure both locally and internationally. Plus, he had no chance to win the war because his army was weak and divided. Therefore, he ran the risk of losing everything.

Collaboration Analysis
The main actors for the model are Cédras and the US. Each of them had two strategy options: either to go to war (F) or to negotiate (N) for a peaceful solution. For these options, 4 results are possible.

  1. FF : The two states decides to go to war
  2. FN : The US wants war, but Cédras wants negotiation
  3. NF : The US wants to negotiate, but Cédras wants war
  4. NN : Both states want to negotiate

When the two states decide to fight, there is no cooperation, and this would cause casualties in both sides. If the two states decide to negotiate, this would represent a perfect cooperation. Coordination will follow; both Haiti and the US would work compromisingly toward an outcome equally beneficial for each. But, when only one state decides to negotiate, there will not be war; however, the state that decides to negotiate will lose more in the negotiation, as it will be weaker.

Preference Order for the US
The US’s best option is Case 2. This would mean that Cédras is negotiating out of fear for the superpower. The US could easily take advantage of that and set the tone of the negotiation. For instance, it could easily require Cédras to relinquish power, prepare Aristide’s return and go to exile. The second-best option for the US is when both decides to fight. Given the strength superiority of the US, Cédras would easily be crushed. Due to his unpopularity, there would not be too much national or international blame. The third-best option for the US is when both negotiates. This requires a lot of meetings, bureaucracy, and would not be as quick as the second option; Aristide was elected for five years and had only 17 months left. The last option is case 3. This would mean that the US is weaker and deterred by Cédras. So, he would dominate the negotiation, thus influencing it more in its advantage.

Preference Order for Cédras
Cédras’s best option is Case 3: only him wants war. Although this scenario is very unlikely, but it would enable him to negotiate with little compromise. For instance, he could reject the demand for reinstating Aristide, and even oblige the UN to lift the sanctions against his regime. Cédras’s second-best option is when both states negotiate (Case 4). In this scenario, Cédras could potentially loose his power, but each state would have to make some compromises benefiting the other. Cédras could thus save his assets and avoid exile. The third best option is Case 2. He would surely loose his power but would avoid imprisonment and death. The last option is Case 1. If both states decide to fight, Cédras would surely loose the war and risk death or imprisonment.

The preference orders are illustrated below:

Cedras VS Clinton2
The US’s best option is to wage war. In this case, Cédras will either front it or capitulate. By fronting, Cédras would be in his worst option while the US in his second; by negotiating, Cédras would be in his third option and the US in his first. Therefore, it would be better for Cédras to negotiate if the US declares war. On the other hand, if the US wants negotiation, it will be in its third or fourth options while Cédras in his first or second option. So, this option is not good for the US. Not knowing how Cédras would respond, the US rather shows its willingness to fight. By doing so, Cédras would surely negotiate. Therefore, the Nash equilibrium is Case 2.

Outcome Predictions
According to the model, if the US wants to remove Cédras more effectively, it has to declare war. That is what happened exactly. After the ultimatum in September 15th, the US never defected. At first, Cédras resisted: “We have no desire to kill Americans. We have the duty to defend our country” (Rohter Larry). This was an attempt to move to Case 3, which would have been his best. But the US took a tougher stance; the invasion was launched; US airplanes left their base toward Haiti. In the Nash table, this put Cédras in the first column, which means negotiating is his best choice. Again, that is what happened: As soon as Cédras realized the invasion was not a hoax, he quickly began negotiating (Philippe Girard: 150). On September 17th  Colin Powell and former President Carter arrived in Port-au-Prince to begin the negotiation. Out of fear, Cédras accepted to resign in exchange for immunity. He flew to exile in Panama, and Aristide was restored on October 15th. Thus, the game predicts accurately the outcome.

The Role of International Organizations
The Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nation (UN) endeavored to oust Cédras. Only one month after the coup, the OAS initiated economic sanctions on Haiti. Assets of the military leaders in the US were frozen; foreign aid was cut; and a trade embargo was imposed on Haitian exports. This turn out to hurt only the poorest Haitians; 29780 jobs were lost by February 1992; most schools were closed within 6 months; child vaccination dropped from 40% to 12 % by 1993, which caused a measles epidemic (Gibbons, E. et al.). These prompted the US to partially lift the sanctions in February 1992(Werleigh, Claudette). In sum, the OAS sanctions was a fiasco. The first special OAS envoy to Haiti, Oscar Ramirez-Ocampo, even concluded that the embargo is ineffective to restore Aristide (Werleigh, Claudette).

However, by 1993, the UN started to impose tougher sanctions on Haiti. In June 1993, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 841, which imposed an oil and arms embargo on Haiti. Quickly, Cédras initiated negotiation. The Governors Island agreement was quickly signed on July 3rd, by which he promised to step down by October 30th and pave the way for Aristide return. Consequently, the UN approved Resolution 861, which lifted the sanctions. However, when the US’s chargé d’affaire went to Haiti to plan the deposed president’s return, she was harassed by Cédras’s partisans in October 11th (Girard, P. R.: 130).  The UN sanctions were restituted shortly after on October 13th, but Cédras remained undeterred. In May 1994, UN Security Council approved Resolution 917 which interdicted Haiti to trade all commodities and products. Later in July, the UN authorized the US to use all necessary means to remove Cédras.

Without the UN’s tough sanctions, Cédras would have not signed the Governors’ Island agreement, which was a crucial step in his ouster. He violated its terms, which legitimized the UN to take the severe sanction authorizing the US to remove him with lethal force. Without that, Cédras would have never negotiated and stepped down. Therefore, the UN was the key International Organization that toppled Cédras.

After the coup staged by Cédras, the US had good motives for removing him. First, to stop the migration flood; second, to uphold democracy. Cédras also had some good motives: to preserve his regime, his assets and his honor. In this battle, both the US and Cédras had 2 options: negotiation, or war. The Nash Equilibrium of this battle predicts that if the US declare war to Haiti, it put Cédras in the first column, which means negotiation would be his best option. That’s what happened exactly. Because the US never defect after the ultimatum, Cédras, finally deterred, chose to negotiate. However, without the help of the UN, this mission would not be so easy. International blame was also an American preoccupation, which was handled when the UN authorized the use of force to depose Cédras.

Abbott, Elizabeth. Haiti: A Shattered Nation. London ; New-York ; Overlook Duckworth, 2011.

Carl M. Cannon, Clinton gives ultimatum ‘Your time is up,’ president tells Haiti’s leaders Haiti: on the brink of invasion, The Baltimore Sun.   https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-09-16-1994259012-story.html

Douglas Jehl. “Haiti Generals Regain Access to $79 Million.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 14, 1994.

Freed, K. (1994, Oct 11). Cédras resigns in haiti, ending brutal regime. Los Angeles Times.

Gibbons, E. and R. Garfield. “The Impact of Economic Sanctions on Health and Human Rights in Haiti, 1991-1994.” American Journal of Public Health 89, no. 10 (1999): 1499-1504.

Girard Philippe, Paradise Lost : Haiti’s Tumultuous Journey. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Girard, P. R. (2002). Credibility, domestic politics and presidential decision-making: William J. clinton’s 1994 invasion of haiti. The Journal of Caribbean History, 36(1), 127-VII.

Pezzullo, Ralph. Plunging into Haiti. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

Rey, Terry. “Junta, Rape, and Religion in Haiti, 1993-1994.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15, no. 2 (1999): 73-100.

Rohter, Larry. “Showdown In Haiti: In Haiti; A Cloudy Future for the Military Leaders.” New York Times,1994, Late (East Coast).

Simons, Geoffrey L. Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy Or Genocidal Tool?. London;Jackson;: Pluto Press, 1999.

Werleigh, Claudette Antoine. “Haiti and the Halfhearted.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49, no. 9 (1993): 20-23.

Wien Weibert Arthus. “The Challenge of Democratizing the Caribbean during the Cold War: Kennedy Facing the Duvalier Dilemma” Diplomatic History, Volume 39, Issue 3, 1 June 2015: 504–531.

Author: marclaguerreblog

PhD Student in Civil Engineering at Rice University

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