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Republic of Haiti

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In December of 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was elected to the presidency of Haiti in the country’s first ever democratic presidential election. He assumed the office on February 7, 1991, but was overthrown that September in a coup led by dissatisfied elements of the army. From October 1991 to September 1994, a military junta governed Haiti. This brutal military dictatorship was characterized by widespread and systematic human rights violations. It has been estimated by the UN that government and paramilitary forces killed upwards of 4,000 Haitians and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee into the neighboring Dominican Republic and to risk emigration on the high seas.

During those violent years of 1991-1994, many thousands of Haitians crowded into unseaworthy boats in an attempt to seek asylum in the United States. Continuing the policy of his predecessor George H.W. Bush, the Clinton administration responded to this massive wave of immigration by interdicting the refugees on the high seas and repatriating them back to Haiti. This Haitian refugee policy went through many changes and legal maneuverings in U.S. courts and in response to a public relations campaign by human rights activists. Eventually more than 30,000 Haitians were detained in a legal limbo at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the fall of 1994, President Clinton ordered U.S. forces to prepare to launch a military intervention (Operation Uphold Democracy) to restore the democratically elected Aristide to power. President Clinton also dispatched a last minute diplomatic team of former President Jimmy Carter, General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA). This two-prong approach of diplomacy backed with the threat of military invasion was successful, and Haiti’s military leaders agreed to step down returning Aristide to office.

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