As one of his first executive acts, Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, has asked donor nations to help him re-establish the army that was disbanded by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide 16 years ago. The initial cost: $95 million, which will go, Martelly says, to a starter force of 3,500.
At best, Martelly’s priorities are confused. At worst, they are ominous. He is proposing to spend a lot of money on a militia that Haiti doesn’t need when the country is still in shambles because of the 2010 earthquake. Worse, he is reconstituting an institution that was used, from the 1950s onwards, almost exclusively as a tool of oppression.
Elected by a huge margin last spring, Martelly ought to make completing Haiti’s recovery from the earthquake his first order of business. More than 500,000 Haitians remain homeless in the quake’s aftermath, living in squalid tent camps that punctuate Port-au-Prince and its environs. Government offices -- the presidential palace, the prime minister’s office, the ministries of finance and justice, the legislative building, and the bureau of taxation -- are in ruins. Electricity is still unreliable in Port-au-Prince, and more erratic in the provinces. Sanitation is minimal in the capital; a cholera epidemic -- death toll 6,600 -- rages into its second year.
It’s easy to understand, if not forgive, Martelly’s interest in an army, especially given Haiti’s history. Because independence from France in 1804 was hard fought and hard won by the slave generals who were the country’s founding fathers, the idea of an army has always been dear to Haitians. Without a military, it was thought, Haiti would be open to another conquest by foreign forces. After independence, Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic fought a few battles.
By 1915, Haiti’s army was so dysfunctional that 330 U.S. Marines were able to take over the country without military resistance. The U.S., which occupied Haiti for the next 19 years, disbanded the army and created a replacement called the gendarmerie or “garde,” which fought alongside the Marines against Haitian guerrillas who opposed the U.S. presence.
After the Americans left, the army that evolved from the “garde” continued the tradition of using its arms solely against fellow Haitians in the service of whatever regime was in charge. Eventually, its officers developed their own taste for power. They would take interim control, choose the next president and oust him, then the strongest among them would run for president.
Dangerous Secret Police
When the ruthless dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president in 1957, he countered the army’s power by establishing his own force. The Volunteers for National Security -- or Tontons Macoutes, as they were called -- were a dangerous secret police loyal only to him. After Duvalier’s son and successor was ousted in 1986, the Tontons Macoutes were disbanded, though never properly disarmed.
In 1995, Aristide dissolved the army, officially because of its repugnant human-rights record. At the same time, he hadn’t forgotten that the army had participated in a 1991 coup that ended his first term in office. The weapons of the army, like those of the Tontons Macoutes, were never thoroughly confiscated.
Today, Haiti’s internal security is overseen by the seven-year-old United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The 12,000-person force suppresses unrest and helps Haitian police cope with crime, including kidnappings and drug trafficking. The mission won’t stay forever, of course, and has already drawn down its numbers, from 13,000. Clearly, Haiti will need a way of ensuring its own security.
Martelly says he wants to re-establish the army as a supplement to the still weak Haitian national police, a force that the UN, along with various aid groups, has been trying to professionalize for more than 10 years. And he believes reviving the military is a way to address unemployment, officially estimated at around 50 percent but probably much higher.
These, however, are not good reasons to raise an army in Haiti. The solution to a weak police force is to strengthen the police. The solution to joblessness is jobs, not barracks.
One Short Border
Haiti’s security concerns are domestic ones, best handled by a well-trained police force. The nation’s one short frontier, with the Dominican Republic, is quiet and can be patrolled by a small border guard. The only serious external interventions in the past century have come from the U.S. and the UN, and against them, any Haitian army would be powerless.
What a resurrected army could do is precisely what Haiti doesn’t need again. I was shot at by the Haitian army several times in the late 1980s, when I was reporting on popular resistance to the military regimes that followed the fall of Duvalier. Not only did the soldiers open fire on unarmed demonstrators, but they followed as I fled with the protesters into the shantytowns, and continued shooting. They went from house to house, looking for demonstrators, beating some and imprisoning others.
Michel Martelly needs to think in original ways about how to run his exhausted country, rather than hew to worn-out Haitian traditions of macho and militarism. If he wants to build a brigade, let him build a street-building, house-constructing, sewer-digging, tree-planting brigade. Let him upgrade the sorry Haitian police. He can start by paying them decent wages, which will improve morale and thus performance and make them less prone to corruption.
Certainly the $95 million that Martelly hopes to raise from donors in order to build an army could provide thousands of jobs and many services and improvements that Haiti sorely needs. Maybe he could look for funds to train and pay teachers, which is what Haiti really requires to build its future. Instead, Martelly wants to use $15 million of the $95 million he seeks to pay pensions to ex-soldiers, many of whom are sworn enemies of Haiti’s democracy. These are neither judicious nor innovative steps for the first president elected in post-earthquake Haiti.
(Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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