Talks Barely Beat Invasion U.s. Intervention In Haiti

September 20, 1994|By Steve Goldstein | Steve Goldstein,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- En route to Washington Sunday night aboard the blue-and-white C-137 emblazoned United States of America, former President Jimmy Carter was stunned to learn that the barely hours-old agreement that averted a massive U.S. invasion of Haiti was in trouble.

His aide, Robert Pastor, who had remained in Port-au-Prince, told Mr. Carter by telephone that the Haitian military leaders were "scared" by the tough language used by President Clinton in his 9:30 p.m. address announcing the pact to the American public.

Mr. Clinton's use of the word "dictators" had irked the Haitian generals. Mr. Pastor suggested that they could be calmed by a meeting with Lt. Gen. Henry H. Shelton, commander of the U.S. military forces offshore.

General Shelton and other U.S. commanders met with the Haitian leadership yesterday morning before U.S. forces came ashore.

Mr. Carter was even more surprised to find out that his air-to-shore conversation had been picked up by a ham radio operator, who passed it on to Cable News Network.

"That's what happened to Prince Charles," Mr. Carter dryly told CNN. The eavesdropping was a bizarre nightcap on an extraordinary day.

Mr. Clinton was clock-watching when he held his first meeting with advisers around 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

The commander in chief had given his three emissaries -- Mr. Carter, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell -- a noon deadline to wrap up an agreement or get out of Haiti.

At the outside, they could stay until 3 p.m., giving them a cushion before the vanguard of the invasion arrived.

Fully briefed, Mr. Clinton went to the one place he could be alone with his thoughts: his church.

As he bowed his head, Clinton heard the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman of Foundry United Methodist Church plead, "Oh, God, be with the president of the United States," in his "awesome and sometimes very lonely responsibilities."

From there, it was back to the Oval Office and a steady stream of advisers and phone calls.

Mr. Carter had been reporting "glimmers" of progress, but there was nothing concrete.

At 1 p.m., Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili passed through the Secret Service cordon at the Oval Office to give Mr. Clinton a chance to call off the invasion.

Once the president gave the go-ahead, several thousand paratroopers from the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division would take off aboard 61 aircraft.

The order had to be given by 3 p.m. so Operation Uphold Democracy could begin with the paratroops -- scheduled to go in to Port-au-Prince one minute after midnight.

"Pack 'em!" Mr. Clinton said.

In Port-au-Prince, the most important meeting may have been the one that began shortly after the U.S. delegation left its hotel Sunday morning. Mr. Carter wore a white guayabera shirt, khaki trousers and loafers, in contrast to the dark suits of his colleagues.

Meeting general's wife

At the suggestion of some local businessmen, they went to the home of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and met with his wife and family for 90 minutes.

Mr. Carter would later call Yanick Cedras "one of the strongest and most powerful women" he'd met and said she was "adamantly" against any agreement that violated Haiti's sovereignty.

"Her family was military," said Mr. Nunn. "She is very patriotic. And, frankly, I think the family had taken the decision the evening before to die together."

But General Powell, for whom the Haitian military has great respect, spoke eloquently about the real meaning of courage, honor and duty. Mr. Nunn emphasized the duty of generals to protect an army from being completely destroyed.

"It was a very important meeting," said Mr. Nunn. "It had an effect on General Cedras."

Mr. Carter came away thinking they had persuaded Mrs. Cedras, and that she would influence her husband.

Shortly after noon, discussions resumed at the military headquarters, but earlier progress was slowed by details.

The sticking point: The military would not agree to a date certain on which to leave power. Still, Mr. Carter was telling Washington that he sensed a breakthrough.

The first urgent warnings went out to Mr. Carter and his team about 5 p.m. Mr. Clinton wanted the group to leave Haiti so the invasion could commence.

"I frankly had come to the conclusion that we were not going to reach an agreement," Mr. Clinton said later. "I told President Carter, I said, 'This is uncomfortable for me. We've been friends a long time. I'm going to order you out of there in 30 minutes. You have got to get out.' "

Mr. Carter pushed for more time.

U.S. public opinion weighed

Outside, hundreds of Haitians, some hauled in by trucks, demonstrated noisily against exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On state TV broadcasts, images of the American president were accompanied by a lyrics sung in Creole: "Clinton, Clinton, you are angry, what can a little country like Haiti do to you, why do you want to send Americans soldiers to kill us?"

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