The Dictator's Voodoo Priests and the Forgotten Attack on the White House
In 1994, America nearly went to war because voodoo priests interpreted a failed attack on the White House as an auspicious sign. It's a true story of bags of cash, voodoo diplomacy, and secret deals.
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In the early 1990s, the United States nearly went to war because voodoo priests interpreted a failed attack on the White House as an auspicious sign. This is not hyperbole – it happened. Few people know about it, though, and even fewer have thought about what it means for understanding modern politics.
We like to think that politics is a rational game, in which wise people weigh up the risks of various courses of action and then pursue the best solution available. But the truth is that, very often, we’re at the mercy of irrational forces, the quirks of timing, and the general weirdness of a small subset of humans.
This is the true story of a bewildering, but little-known event in 1994 that involves CIA training, the threat of “invisible zombies,” bags of cash secretly changing hands, an attempt to weaponize HIV against US soldiers, one disgruntled American truck driver, diplomacy that relied on a “voodoo priest to the stars,” an airplane nearly hitting the White House on 9/11, and US taxpayers paying the monthly rent for a dictator’s Mom.
It’s also a story that will challenge your certainty that doing “the right thing” in politics is always the best course of action.
The story begins in Haiti.
Haiti, which occupies the western half of Hispaniola Island, has long been a place of political tragedy. From the early 20th century until today, the lives of its leaders have been, to borrow the phrase from Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Seizing power in Haiti was usually a death sentence, or at the very least, produced an unpleasant ending.
As I wrote in my 2016 book, The Despot’s Accomplice:
Two-thirds of presidents that left office in the last 115 years have been exiled, jailed, or killed. In a particularly bloodthirsty period between 1908 and 1915, Haiti’s departing leaders were, in order, ‘exiled, exiled, bombed and blown up, imprisoned, exiled, executed, exiled,’ and, particularly gruesome, ‘dragged from the French legation by an angry mob and impaled on the iron fence surrounding the legation and torn to pieces.’
So, who would want to be President of Haiti? The answer, for much of the 20th century, was ruthless dictators. Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986. They were two of the most violent, brutal leaders of the last century, cracking down on dissent with their feared Tonton Macoutes paramilitary squads. But by the early 1990s, there was a glimmer of hope, as Haiti – like many countries at the time – held its first quasi-democratic elections.
Unfortunately, the elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was not in power for long before the Haitian tradition of taking power with bullets, rather than ballots, returned. On September 29, 1991, a military leader named Raoul Cédras took power in a military coup d’état.
Cédras was no stranger to the US government. He had participated in the notorious “School of the Americas” program, which has provided military training to a who’s who of terribly brutal figures during the Cold War, a significant blight on America’s self-image as a benevolent exporter of democracy. But, unfortunately for the people of Haiti, Cédras used that military training not only to seize power, but to consolidate it with indiscriminate bloodshed.
In one incident, hundreds of peaceful protesters were gunned down by machine guns. Then, the extrajudicial killings began. An estimated 1,021 people were murdered without a trial, vendetta killings by the budding dictator who wanted to establish an iron grip on the power that had so often proved slippery to dictators in Haiti in the past.
These killings didn’t sit well with Washington at the time, but what really turned them against Haiti’s military regime was its growing involvement in the drug trade. The early 1990s was a period in which figures like Pablo Escobar dominated American news bulletins, as the scourge of imported drugs and the battles over territory that ensued brought a serious surge in violence to cities across the United States. As Bill Clinton became president in January 1993, his administration began to send more direct signals: Cédras would need to go.
However, timing is everything in politics, and discussions about Haiti were taking place in the wake of the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993. America’s public was wary of foreign military operations that put US soldiers at risk, and few Americans saw Haiti as somewhere that was central to Washington’s strategic interests. Why, they said, should we care about this political backwater and its brutal dictator?
Nonetheless, Clinton decided to act, and hoped he could depose Cédras and provide Haiti with another attempt at democracy, all without having any dead GIs gracing the 5’o clock news. In a military operation dubbed “Operation Uphold Democracy,” Clinton deployed America’s naval power off the coast of Haiti. This was gunboat diplomacy at its most intimidating, and the message to Cédras was clear: leave, or we’ll force you out.
Haiti has a long history of widespread belief in supernatural forces that can be harnessed and deployed against enemies through the power of Voodoo. It’s a fusion of West African animist religion – boasting 401 distinct spirits – but also a single God that embodies significant remnants of Catholicism.
So, as Clinton’s gunboats loomed ominously on the beachfront horizon, Haiti’s junta turned to its spiritual powers, knowing that it couldn’t win a conventional military battle with the world’s sole superpower.
“We will fight and face the invader. Zombies in the first line and us behind them,” the junta promised. There were to be, in total, 60,000 “invisible zombies” deployed. The junta also released statements implying that they had weaponized HIV, a relatively new disease at the time, and would use syringes on the battlefield, injecting American troops with it when they got close.
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