Our Man in Haiti

This week, as exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide finalizes plans for a Miami conference addressing his nation's future, a former bit player in the island drama will watch from a distance, a mere spectator. Not long ago he was center stage, an actor playing an intriguing and mysterious role.

"I'm in a quandary," says Darryl Reaves, former state representative from Dade and unsuccessful candidate for both Congress and the county commission. "I would love to explain everything I did, because I think I did a tremendous job for this nation and for the nation of Haiti. But I can't tell you."

Not everyone shares Reaves's upbeat assessment of his unusual performance during the current Haitian political crisis. Those familiar with his work have described him as a shill for the Haitian military, which has been condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups for the bloody coup against Aristide and the reign of terror and repression that has paralyzed Haiti since 1991.

During a four-month period last year, after insinuating himself into the Port-au-Prince headquarters of General Raoul Cedras, Reaves acted as a liaison between the military regime and the international press corps. "I opened the military headquarters and persuaded the general to allow the media in there," Reaves boasts. "I made sure they [reporters] had access to anything they wanted."

Though Reaves denies he did anything improper, his actions may have violated the United States's embargo against providing goods or services to the island's government. Reaves claims he was never actually working for the military, or for anyone else. "I was there as a private citizen. This was totally a humanitarian effort on behalf of the good people --" he pauses. "Let me put it to you like this --" he says, faltering again. Finally he resorts to what will become a refrain: "That I can't discuss."

But the 33-year-old Reaves is a politician at heart, and as with most politicians, talking comes more naturally than keeping quiet. The tale he weaves about his role in last summer's negotiations between Cedras and Aristide, held on Governors Island in New York, is as compelling as it is incredible. And this weekend, as Aristide and other Haitians are expected to gather at downtown Miami's Inter-Continental Hotel amid growing tension with the Clinton Administration, Reaves can only dream about what course history might have taken had his efforts been successful.

Success has proved elusive in other aspects of Reaves's life. While he did win a seat in the state legislature in 1990 (the same seat previously held by his father), his single term was marked by controversy and contentiousness. He abandoned Tallahassee to mount an anemic campaign for Congress against Carrie Meek in 1992. That was followed a few months later by a resounding defeat in his effort to unseat Arthur Teele from the newly expanded county commission.

Reaves traces his passion for Haitian affairs back to September 30, 1991, the day Aristide was ousted from power. Haitians in Miami took to the streets in protest, and the initial violence prompted memories of the brutal clash between Miami cops and Haitians a year earlier. Reaves, whose legislative district at the time bordered Little Haiti, says he was appalled.

He credits himself with brokering a crucial meeting among city officials, police commanders, and Haitian leaders. An official day of outrage was arranged. Permits were issued. Platforms and barricades were set up along NE 54th Street. And further violence was averted. From that incident, Reaves says, "I became a conduit for a lot of the Haitian leadership in Miami."

It was a relationship he says he maintained through his failed political campaigns. In fact, after his loss to Teele in March 1993, Reaves -- an attorney without a steady practice -- decided to seek a post with the U.S. State Department as director of the Agency for International Development (AID) in Haiti. Reaves soon realized, however, that the position would remain vacant until the Aristide crisis was resolved, so he kept a close eye on events.

The best hope for a settlement came last summer when the United Nations and the United States hosted a summit between Aristide and Cedras on Governors Island in New York City's harbor. "I got a call from some local people asking if I would take part in the negotiations," Reaves says, though he refuses to identify who called him. Flattered and honored, he flew to New York in late June and checked into a Manhattan hotel. Reaves had a room on the 30th floor. Aristide, he claims, was on the 40th. Just prior to the beginning of the conference, Reaves says he met privately with Aristide at the hotel.

In the ensuing days, Reaves followed the proceedings on television from his hotel room. Optimism turned to disappointment as the talks bogged down amid rancor and mistrust on both sides. On Sunday, June 27, Reaves recalls, the prospects for compromise seemed particularly bleak. "That Monday I got another call, asking me to come over to the island to talk to General Cedras," Reaves claims, adding that he had never met Cedras. "I jumped at the opportunity. I thought, 'This is history.'" Reaves says Secret Service agents escorted him to the island, where he met with Cedras several times.

During his first interview with New Times, Reaves was somewhat circumspect in describing his involvement: "Hopefully I played some kind of role in convincing the military to sign the agreement." But in a subsequent interview, he was far less modest: "I was the person who convinced General Cedras he had to go along with this accord."

Reaves again refuses to name those who summoned him to meet with the military leader, claiming their lives would be in danger if their identities were revealed. But Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, an advisor to Aristide who attended the Governors Island negotiations, says he can eliminate one possibility. "He certainly wasn't representing any of the democratic forces in Haiti; he wasn't there on Aristide's behalf," Kurzban asserts. "The only way he could have gotten on Governors Island is if he was either working for the CIA or the Haitian military." As for Reaves's claim that his involvement was pivotal in persuading Cedras to sign the agreement, Kurzban is incredulous. "What forced Cedras to sign the agreement," he says, "was the pressure placed on him by the international community, not Darryl Reaves."

Reaves brushes aside suggestions he was working for the CIA or the Haitian military. Too many Americans, he states, mistakenly believe there are only two sides to the conflict in Haiti: Aristide versus Cedras. "There is not one camp or two camps, there are at least four or five camps in Haiti," he notes. And he hints that his Haitian contacts are drawn from the country's business community, with which his family has had past dealings. "But I can't talk about that," he adds.

According to a State Department spokesman, Reaves was not on the official list of those invited to the Governors Island conference, and U.S. special envoy to Haiti Lawrence Pezzullo is unaware of Reaves's name or his participation in the talks. "But if he was brought on Governors Island by one of the parties to meet privately with General Cedras," the spokesman explains, "then that is entirely possible."

The accord, which outlined a timetable for Cedras's resignation and Aristide's return, was signed July 3. His mission accomplished, Reaves flew back to Miami. Within a week, he says he received yet another call from his unnamed Haitian contacts. "I was asked if I'd continue assisting by going down to Haiti," he recalls. "Naturally, I left immediately."

Reporters who regularly cover Haiti describe a poverty-stricken country wracked by violence and veiled in mystery, a place where voodoo determines events as much as politics, and where shadowy characters with murky alliances thrive in an atmosphere of low-grade anarchy.

In mid-July Darryl Reaves landed squarely in the heart of this oblique world and settled into his new surroundings with remarkable speed and ease. "He was suddenly the man in Haiti," notes Kenneth Freed, Miami-based Caribbean bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. "He was the one we were supposed to get in touch with if we wanted to talk to the military. I was never clear what his financial relationship was with the military."

Freed tried unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions to meet with Reaves, but Reaves preferred a different means of communication. "I would get these faxes from him," Freed recalls. "They were critiques of my stories." Referring to them as critiques, Freed quickly adds, is perhaps a bit generous. Often they were profane screeds in which Freed's stories were determined to be "full of shit" and his political sympathies transparent: an Aristide supporter. "I would also get these indirect messages," Freed continues, "usually through [another reporter in Haiti], that I was in real trouble and that maybe I shouldn't come back to Haiti."

Reaves, who earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Florida A&M, denies ever having sent faxes about Haiti -- profane or not -- to Freed or any other reporter. "Never," he insists. "You must understand. I didn't have an office in Haiti. I didn't have a fax machine. I didn't have a staff. I didn't have anything."

One thing Reaves did have, however, was a reputation among journalists. While his relationship with the Haitian military remained unclear, his volatile personality became the subject of much discussion during the weeks following the Governors Island accord. Nancy Nusser, a reporter for Cox Newspapers -- a chain of eighteen dailies including the Atlanta Constitution and the Palm Beach Post, decided the former Dade legislator's dealings with the media and the military warranted a story. "I kept hearing about him from other reporters," Nusser explains. "This guy suddenly came on the scene and what he did was hook up journalists with Cedras and Michel Franaois." (Port-au-Prince police chief Franaois is suspected of masterminding the coup against Aristide and of controlling a vast network of armed thugs.) Reaves's ground rules for arranging interviews, according to Nusser, required that his name never be included in any stories. "He used to tell reporters, 'I don't exist,'" Nusser says.

In August, after Nusser made it clear to Reaves that she was going to prepare an article about him whether he cooperated or not, she says he became very angry and threatened her. "He got really mad and he started swearing," she recalls. "And he said, 'If you fuck with my life, I'll fuck with your life.' He said things like that a couple of times. I got scared at that point, and I avoided him." Nusser says other reporters told her that Reaves was so livid he began talking about having her arrested in Haiti. Fearful that she would indeed be detained by security forces, Nusser left Haiti and finished reporting the story from her home in Mexico.

Reaves denies threatening Nusser and ascribes her fear, at least in part, to what he describes as the paranoia some white women feel when dealing with a black man. "The young lady wanted to interview me and I refused to discuss my role with her," he says simply. "I didn't want the focus to be on me. I'm inconsequential."

Nusser's article appeared September 3 on the front page of the Palm Beach Post under the headline "Ex-Dade Politico Helps Haiti's Army: Former State Representative Is Now Shadowy Liaison." The Miami Herald has never reported Reaves's activities in Haiti, and Nusser doesn't understand why. It's important, she argues, to let people in Dade County know what Reaves has been doing, since it's not unrealistic to think he may run for office again.

But the Herald's silence on the matter was not uncommon. Nusser found that a number of news organizations appeared hesitant to criticize Reaves for his actions in Haiti. "They were afraid their access [to military sources] would get completely cut off if they offended the wrong people," she says. In fact, she admits, one of the reasons she was given the task of writing the Reaves article was that she didn't cover Haiti on a regular basis. If she lost access as a result, it wouldn't permanently damage Cox's ability to gather news.

Another journalist who dealt with Reaves is CNN correspondent Charles Jaco. "We ran into him quite by accident," explains Jaco, who is based in Miami. "We were at the military headquarters in downtown Port-au-Prince, on the second floor, a highly restricted area, when we saw him. He was going from one secured office to another, places we couldn't go." Ironically, Jaco recognized Reaves from the photograph that accompanied Nusser's article. He got Reaves's attention, and they met for about twenty minutes.

According to Jaco, Reaves claimed he was in Haiti working as a consultant, but not necessarily for the military. "He was very vague," Jaco recalls. Reaves said he was simply trying to get the military's side of the story into the press while at the same time encouraging the media to take a harder look at Aristide's past. For example, Jaco recalls Reaves asking him why reporters weren't doing more stories about Aristide's alleged support for the practice of "necklacing," in which victims are burned to death by gasoline-soaked tires.

Reaves complains that his relationship with the Haitian military has been misunderstood. In order for the Governors Island accord to work, he contends, Cedras and other military leaders had to feel confident they weren't going to be imprisoned for their roles in the coup. And whatever confidence they might have developed was undermined by Aristide's increasingly sharp rhetoric during the approach of the October 15 deadline, when Cedras was supposed to resign.

Reaves's strategy, as he describes it, was to encourage more positive media coverage of the military generally and Cedras in particular. "What we were trying to do was get the military in the mode where they were not always blasted as the bad guys, to get them to relax," he explains. "You've got to make them feel okay about themselves."

This effort to promote goodwill toward Haiti's military rulers wasn't limited to the press. Reaves also targeted Washington lawmakers, in particular members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Engaging in his own version of shuttle diplomacy, Reaves flew between Port-au-Prince and Washington on several occasions and attempted to meet with Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel (New York), an influential member of the caucus. "He first contacted us last summer," recalls Emile Milne, a spokesman for Rangel, "and told us he was a close friend to some of the members of the Florida delegation -- I think he mentioned Rep. Corrine Brown and Rep. Carrie Meek -- and that he wanted some support from Congressman Rangel in getting the position with AID in Haiti. So we wrote him a letter supporting his efforts.

"And then he started going to Haiti," Milne continues, "and on a couple of occasions he called me from Haiti saying he was calling with word from General Cedras. He wanted us to know that Cedras was supportive of a settlement. Eventually Reaves came up to Washington and visited the office. He told me he had more messages from General Cedras. He never did meet with Congressman Rangel. And the last time I talked to Reaves I told him I didn't really think becoming a spokesman for General Cedras was going to help him get a job with AID."

Another congressional staffer reports that Reaves was viewed by some members of the Congressional Black Caucus as being "firmly in the pocket" of the Haitian military. "Whenever I talked to him," says the Democratic staffer, who asked not to be identified, "he just really seemed like he was on a strange adventure. I don't know what happened to Darryl."

Reaves's strange adventure with Haitian politics ended as abruptly as it began. As October drew to a close and it became clear that Cedras and the military would refuse to abide by the Governors Island accord, Reaves left Haiti for good. He says he hasn't had contact with Cedras since then, but bears him no ill will. "He's a very nice, mild guy," Reaves offers. "He had nothing to do with the coup. He was asleep when it happened. They woke him up and told him he was in charge."

And perhaps not surprisingly, he continues to be cautious regarding Aristide. "He's the duly elected president of Haiti," Reaves notes without much enthusiasm, but his return wouldn't necessarily guarantee the establishment of democracy. "I would not embody democracy in any individual."

The principles and ideals of democracy, he adds, inspired him from the outset. His commitment to the struggle even put his own life in danger. At one point, he claims, he was used as a secret emissary by officials in Washington (whom he refuses to name) to deliver assurances to Cedras: If the military complied with Governors Island, Cedras would not be hauled before a "kangaroo court" in the U.S. on drug charges, a la Manuel Noriega. "Here I am, having this conversation with the general," Reaves says, recounting the episode. "I have no bodyguards. I don't have a gun. And then this other general bursts into the room and throws a fax down on the desk which contained some report contradicting everything I was saying. It turned out to be false, but I was scared. My wife has also been afraid for my safety."

Through all of this, he says, he has never been paid a cent. His expenses A hotel rooms, food, plane tickets to New York, Port-au-Prince, and Washington -- he paid for himself. He estimates the total amount to be a couple of thousand dollars. Cox Newspapers reporter Nancy Nusser, however, contradicts that contention. In her Palm Beach Post story, she quoted unidentified Haitian sources close to the military as saying Reaves was indeed "hired." The source did not disclose Reaves's supposed fee.

New Times's efforts to corroborate Nusser's information led to a man named Lynn Garrison, a Canadian who lives in Haiti and who has been an advisor to Cedras for more than two years. Often portrayed in media reports as an enigmatic character with very close ties to the Haitian military and alleged links to the U.S. intelligence community, Garrison has handled press relations for the military since the coup.

During a telephone interview last week, Garrison initially claimed not to know Darryl Reaves. But he corrected himself after he was informed it was well-known among journalists that he and Reaves socialized a great deal during Reaves's visits to Haiti. "Darryl is a neat guy," he said warmly.

Was Reaves paid for his work in Haiti? "He told you he wasn't, right?" Garrison asked coyly. "Well, I don't think he was. Neither am I. This is a charity operation."

Eager to apply the spin for which he is known, Garrison without solicitation then began to describe the scene from the window of his office at military headquarters in Port-au-Prince: children playing happily in a nearby courtyard, the twinkling lights of the city slowly coming on as dusk turned to darkness, contented people making their way home to fix dinner. An idyllic scene unfamiliar to most reporters covering Haiti. "I'm just disgusted with the way the media has portrayed this country," Garrison huffed. But he vowed to continue promoting the truth, just as did Darryl Reaves. "Darryl is one of the few people I trust," he added.

Opening up a bit, Garrison claimed to be unsure how Reaves plugged in so quickly to the military high command. "I don't know who he met, but all of a sudden he was here in the middle of everything," Garrison recalled. "I like Darryl, don't get me wrong, but the truth is he wasn't pivotal down here. He filled a spot that was never really vacant." Responsibilities for press relations, he added, have always been his.

"A lot of people come here to help," Garrison observed. "And the Haitians are tremendously polite. It's one of their great flaws. They are very tolerant." Eventually, though, Garrison explained, visitors like Reaves realize their services really aren't needed, and they leave.

Whether or not Reaves was paid, he still may have violated the trade embargo against Haiti. "The exportation of services, whether it's remunerated or not, is prohibited by the embargo," explains Bob Levine, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, which is responsible for enforcing the embargo. While Levine recalls hearing about Reaves in the past, he is unaware of any legal action being taken against him.

Ira Kurzban, the Miami attorney and Aristide advisor, says even though it appears Reaves was providing a service to the Haitian military, Washington officials probably consider the offense too minor to investigate, especially in light of the fact that Reaves left Haiti two months ago.

Closer to home, though, Kurzban believes Reaves may have caused himself considerable harm. "It's hard to believe," he warns, "that he could ever hope to run for office in any district that included Haitians."

Reaves isn't saying if he will run for public office again, and for the time being his involvement in politics is strictly domestic. Earlier this month he was hired as an aide to Miami City Commissioner Willy Gort. He describes his position as "special assistant," working part-time as a liaison between Gort and Miami's black community.


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