[links in this report added by HaitiAction.net and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of COHA]
• Disbanded Haitian army seeks to be reconstituted
• Latortue government is more a cruel joke than a professional presence
• UN special representative and military force still too invisible
Six months after the abrupt and violence-laced departure of constitutionally elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and over three months after the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping units which were hailed as an instrument for order and stability in this long-troubled Caribbean island, Haiti remains poised on the edge of chaos. Just as nature in the form of a tropical storm that has managed to kill perhaps 1,000 Haitians, thousands more have died over the past decade, victims of right-wing military and paramilitary forces. Today, ruled by a bumptious, ineffectual and illegitimate cabal whose only validity is supplied by U.S. fiat, Haiti now faces the imminent de facto reconstitution of its brutal Haitian Armed Forces (FADH), dissolved by Aristide in 1995. Across the island, bands of former soldiers are seizing police stations and establishing themselves as the de facto local power, at times displacing the remnants of the national police and placing large swaths of the country under what is effectively outlaw rebel jurisdiction. Meanwhile these soldiers demand the restitution of unpaid wages over the past ten years.
These soldiers of ill-fortune have met little, if any, resistance from the rump Washington-imposed interim government of Washington-designated Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, and at times they have received open encouragement from Latortue's "cabinet members," most notably Interior Minister (and former general) Herard Abraham and the island's sinister justice minister Bernard Gousse, both of whom have suggested that former soldiers - some of the most prominent among whom have already been convicted in absentia for human rights violations committed during the military government of 1991-1994 - could simply be integrated into the police force.
An Army Reborn
In Washington, a State Department preoccupied by Iraq and North Korea appears to have all but overlooked the island's existence; and in New York, a craven lack of political will is in evidence, accompanied by the kind of Machiavellian plotting by the U.S. and French Security Council delegations that was witnessed when that body refused to provide an international police force to defend Arisitide earlier this year. Nor is U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan any more sensitive to the plight of the Haitian populace than he was just before Aristide's downfall, when he provided cover for the U.S. insistence that the former president deserved to be forced into exile because he was a failed leader.
There has yet to be any kind of clear acknowledgment of the magnitude of the threat that Haiti's already battered democratic institutions face from the military resurgence on the island, much less the strategy which will be used to disarm these illegal militias as well as clearly establish the authority of a trained, professional police force, and bring to justice those former soldiers accused of human rights abuses who are now making outrageous demands for compensation. Quite to the contrary, as the exoneration of mass murderer Louis Chamblain by Justice Minister Gousse and the island's tainted courts graphically exemplifies, Haiti is still a very sick country.
Thus as the clock continues to tick on a peacekeeping mission originally authorized for only six months, it seems increasingly likely that the United Nations will exit Haiti much as the United States and Canada precipitously did in 1996: leaving behind a profoundly unstable political situation dominated by heavily armed factions, as thousands of weapons remain in the possession of right-wing vigilantes as well as some in the hands of pro-Aristide supporters. The situation is made even more volatile today by the former military leadership's aspirations to restore both the army and liven the same reign of terror it applied during the decades-long Duvalier and post-Duvalier military dictatorships, as well as under the brutal 1991-1994 military junta of the cunning General Roaul Cedras.
The Haitian Military: Rising from the Ashes?
For example, only six days after the conclusion of the Chamblain trial, the Haitian Times reported on August 18 that the interim government had appointed Winter Etienne - a leader of the bloody armed uprising in Gonaives that preceded Aristide's exile, who is also the coordinator of the National Reconstruction Front, a party headed by former army officers, including rebel leader Guy Philippe - as director of the National Port Authority in Gonaives, the very city he earlier had helped sack. At the Ministry of Interior, former ranking military figure Minister Herard Abraham continues to add former high-ranking military cronies to his staff; among the recent arrivals is former colonel Williams Regala, a particularly sinister aide to former dictator General Henri Namphy and undoubtedly a principal plotter of the massacre of voters during Haiti's aborted November 29, 1987 election. Regala joins another former colleague, Colonel Henri-Robert Marc-Charles, a member of the Cedras-led military junta that overthrew democratically-elected President Aristide 1991, and who is currently the target of a (as yet un-enforced) judicial order requiring his imprisonment prior to trial for involvement in a peasant massacre in Piatre in March 1990.
Erosion of Authority
Former soldiers have already begun to establish their control over a series of small urban areas, particularly in the desperately poor Central Plateau region. On September 1, a large force of 150 former soldiers took control of Petit-Gove, southwest of the capital, and seized ten police officers as hostages the following day in neighboring Grand-Gove, in retaliation for the arrest of four soldiers by police officials. The two sides subsequently agreed to an exchange of prisoners. Also on September 2, more than fifty heavily armed ex-soldiers demonstrated in Gonaives, calling for the reconstitution of the army and the restoration of their back pay. Once there, they were met with open arms by the fiercely anti-Aristide rebel group, the Gonaives Resistance Front - itself largely constituted by former soldiers - which expressed its support for the immediate formation of a legally reorganized and retrained army.
Even more alarming was the response of the official government authorities to the Gonaives march. Rather than denouncing this clear threat to public order on the part of a "gang of thugs" (as they had been earlier characterized by Secretary of State Colin Powell), departmental delegate Elie Cantave declared that the former soldiers had no aim other than to help the people of that city and negotiated with the establishment of a headquarters in a state school within the city. Further south in Jacmel and on the same day, yet another contingent of former soldiers arrived to reinforce with arms and ammunition a group of their colleagues occupying the office of Radio Ti Moun. And in perhaps the most symbolically important incident, former soldiers occupied the police station in Belladere on the Dominican border on September 5 and immediately repainted the facility in yellow, the traditional color of FADH barracks. Simultaneously, the band of ex-soldiers in control of Petit-Goave was swelled by new arrivals, and coast guard installations in Les Cayes remained under the control of ex-soldiers.
The first evidence of a response on the part of the government and the U.N. peacekeeping force came on September 7, when Haitian police, backed by Argentine troops, regained control of Saint-Marc a day after former soldiers took control of the city sixty miles north of Port-au-Prince. In response, rebel leader Sergeant Remissanthe Ravix declared on behalf of the ex-soldiers, "We'll fight to the last man. We'd rather die in combat instead of dying on our knees. They [government authorities] came to power thanks to our weapons they now declare illegal. If they think they can deny us our rights, they will know the same fate as Aristide. The fact that we left Saint-Marc does not mean we gave up. We'll teach a lesson to those who want to destroy the military." Ravix, once implicated in a brutal 2002 massacre committed by former FADH personnel in Belladere, is now the most visible and rambunctious spokesman for the ex-soldiers' movement, which is on the brink of maintaining de facto control over large swaths of Haiti.
Escalating Violence, Ineffective Response
In the face of this wave of new challenges, the government and U.N. peacekeepers alike appear virtually helpless. Prime Minister Latortue and his self-caricaturing government have made bold declarations that peacekeepers will "imminently" retake control of all government buildings, but the prospect of any such action occurring any time soon appears to be nothing more than a mixture of bluff and fantasy. The government has set up a committee to negotiate with the soldiers and offered as initial concessions the integration into the police force of up to 1,000 former soldiers of a force that once numbered over 6,000 in strength. However, Ravix refused to meet with the commission, declaring in Petit-Goave, "The government doesn't need to reconstitute us. We are here. We have always been here. The only thing the government has to do is pay us the 10 years, seven months they owe us and let us do our jobs." On September 12, the government did succeed in obtaining the commitment of a group of representatives of former military personnel (of which Ravix was not a member) to a vaguely worded declaration asserting that "The matter of the military will be dealt with through dialogue; the authority of the Government must be respected; [and] the voluntary and peaceful evacuation of public buildings actually under the control of demobilized soldiers must be done… within the framework of an agreement between the two parties."
Whether this vague rhetoric will produce any concessions in practice on the part of the ex-soldiers remains to be seen, but subsequent demonstrations in their support in St.-Marc and Petit-Goave, on September 13 and a march of ex-soldiers wearing military uniforms in the capital on September 15 sent a clear signal that the militant remnants of the FADH are far from ready to lay down their arms to civil authority.
Stabilization Mission is Too Weak to Stabilize
Moreover, the force's Brazilian commanders have openly warned that they do not have enough troops to stop renewed conflict. Likewise, Argentine Defense Minister Jos Pampuro highlighted the particularly troubling prospect that renewed skirmishes could have taken place on September 18, the anniversary of the dissolution of the army by Aristide. While additional troops from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Spain and Morocco, among others, are expected to bring the total MINUSTAH force to 5,000 members by the end of October, for the moment the U.N. peacekeepers have been rendered completely incapable of fulfilling their most basic function: preserving order and a measure of governmental authority.
The Sound of Silence:
Also strangely absent is the recently appointed U.N. Special Representative to Haiti, Chilean diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdés, whose selection was widely hailed as evidence of a new Latin American commitment to inter-hemispheric cooperation, who has since all but disappeared from carrying out his admittedly difficult mission. While his capacity for action may be constrained, Valdés should at the very least be actively attempting to convey to the Security Council, the Bush administration and the leaders of other hemispheric bodies the gravity of the unfolding military takeover in Haiti. Unfortunately, up to now, Haiti's plight has been overshadowed by the persistent bloodshed in Darfur, Iraq, and Afghanistan, or has been patronizingly dismissed as yet another round of violence in a perennially unstable country.
Haiti has reached a point of crisis, and decisive intervention is required if any shred of, or hope for, Haitian democracy is to be preserved. However shorthanded and overburdened its staff may be, the task of convincing the international community of the necessity of such intervention falls first to the U.N. Stabilization Mission and to Valdés. Hopefully, in the coming months they will decisively demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that Haiti is not being abandoned by the international community yet again, or that leading U.N. authorities, including Valdés, will at least have the dignity of resigning from their assignment in protest of the cruel hoax now being unleashed on the island and its population.
This analysis was prepared by Jessica Leight, COHA Research Fellow.
September 23, 2004
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