Jimmy Carter’s reputation has soared lately.
Typical of the media spin was a Sept. 20 report on CBS Evening News, lauding Carter’s "remarkable resurgence" as a freelance diplomat. The network reported that "nobody doubts his credibility, or his contacts."
For Jimmy Carter, the pact he negotiated in Haiti is the latest achievement of his long career on the global stage.
During his presidency, Carter proclaimed human rights to be "the soul of our foreign policy." Although many journalists promoted that image, the reality was quite different.
Inaugurated 13 months after Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion of East Timor, Carter stepped up U.S. military aid to the Jakarta regime as it continued to murder Timorese civilians. By the time Carter left office, about 200,000 people had been slaughtered.
Elsewhere, despotic allies — from Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to the Shah of Iran — received support from President Carter.
In El Salvador, the Carter administration provided key military aid to a brutal regime. In Nicaragua, contrary to myth, Carter backed dictator Anastasio Somoza almost until the end of his reign. In Guatemala — again contrary to enduring myth — major U.S. military shipments to bloody tyrants never ended.
After moving out of the White House in early 1981, Carter developed a reputation as an ex-president with a conscience. He set about building homes for the poor. And when he traveled to hot spots abroad, news media often depicted Carter as a skillful negotiator on behalf of human rights.
But a decade after Carter left the Oval Office, scholar James Petras assessed the ex-president’s actions overseas — and found that Carter’s image as "a peace mediator, impartial electoral observer and promoter of democratic values…clashes with the experiences of several democratic Third World leaders struggling against dictatorships and pro-U.S. clients."
From Latin America to East Africa, Petras wrote, Carter functioned as "a hard-nosed defender of repressive state apparatuses, a willing consort to electoral frauds, an accomplice to U.S. Embassy efforts to abort popular democratic outcomes and a one-sided mediator."
Observing the 1990 election in the Dominican Republic, Carter ignored fraud that resulted in the paper-thin victory margin of incumbent president Joaquin Balaguer. Announcing that Balaguer’s bogus win was valid, Carter used his prestige to give international legitimacy to the stolen election — and set the stage for a rerun this past spring, when Balaguer again used fraud to win re-election.
In December 1990, Carter traveled to Haiti, where he labored to undercut Jean-Bertrand Aristide during the final days of the presidential race. According to a top Aristide aide, Carter predicted that Aristide would lose, and urged him to concede defeat. (He ended up winning 67 percent of the vote.)
Since then, Carter has developed a warm regard for Haiti’s bloodthirsty armed forces. Returning from his recent mission to Port-au-Prince, Carter actually expressed doubt that the Haitian military was guilty of human rights violations.
Significantly, Carter’s involvement in the mid-September negotiations came at the urging of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras — who phoned Carter only days before the expected U.S. invasion and asked him to play a mediator role. (Cedras had floated the idea in an Aug. 6 appearance on CNN.)
Carter needed no encouragement. All summer he had been urging the White House to let him be a mediator in dealings with Haiti.
Carter’s regard for Cedras matches his evident affection for Cedras’ wife. On Sept. 20, Carter told a New York Times interviewer: "Mrs. Cedras was impressive, powerful and forceful. And attractive. She was slim and very attractive."
By then, Carter was back home in Georgia. And U.S. troops in Haiti were standing by — under the terms of the Carter-negotiated agreement — as Haiti’s police viciously attacked Haitians in the streets.
The day after American forces arrived in Haiti, President Clinton was upbeat, saying that "our troops are working with full cooperation with the Haitian military" — the same military he had described five days earlier as "armed thugs" who have "conducted a reign of terror, executing children, raping women, killing priests."
The latest developments in Haiti haven’t surprised Petras, an author and sociology professor at Binghamton University in New York. "Every time Carter intervenes, the outcomes are always heavily skewed against political forces that want change," Petras said when we reached him on Sept. 20. "In each case, he had a political agenda — to support very conservative solutions that were compatible with elite interests."
Petras described Carter as routinely engaging in "a double discourse. One discourse is for the public, which is his moral politics, and the other is the second track that he operates on, which is a very cynical realpolitik that plays ball with very right-wing politicians and economic forces."
And now, Petras concludes, "In Haiti, Carter has used that moral image again to impose one of the worst settlements imaginable."
With much of Haiti’s murderous power structure remaining in place, the results are likely to be grim.