Army Revival Planned for Haiti. Isabeau Doucet
Special to the Star [Toronto Star]
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Charismatic pop star-turned-president Michel Martelly took over Haiti on Saturday, sworn in during a power outage in front of dozens of dignitaries.
The 50-year-old performer known to Haitians as “Sweet Micky” was swept to power in a March 20 presidential runoff.
Among his campaign promises was a vow to replace the discredited armed forces with a modern army capable of responding to natural disasters. The previous discredited army was disbanded by ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Martelly said he wants to bring in “a force that can keep the peace, that can secure the borders, control drug trafficking and intervene in times of natural catastrophes, that could protect the environment.”
“We’re talking about a modern army, especially an army that could create employment, integrate youth, regain our sovereignty,” he said.
Martelly said he met with Edmond Mulet, head of the UN mission that has maintained order in Haiti since 2004 (known as MINUSTAH), and told him “there will need to be a relationship between this (military) force we have to train … and MINUSTAH, as their departure will definitely depend on scheduling the establishment of this force.”
Mulet told the Star that negotiations have begun to eventually downsize MINUSTAH and transfer its functions to a new force.
“They don’t know yet if it’s going to be an army or a national guard, or a Gendarmerie, or a Carabinieri-type” force, Mulet said.
A beefed-up Haitian National Police was supposed to replace the army as a domestic security force. But despite years of investment, the “police are not well equipped and don’t have the means to be apolitical,” Martelly said. “They are badly paid and sometimes neglected, which leads them astray.”
But the idea of rebuilding an army in Haiti is controversial. Many Haitians associate the military with a leading role in political violence under former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and in subsequent coups, says Ben Dupuy, editor of Haiti Progres, a newspaper about Haiti published in the United States.
The former dictator made a surprise return to Haiti in January, and has since been charged with embezzlement and human rights abuses.
But views like Dupuy’s — and the uncertainty about whether a new army will actually be built — aren’t stopping dozens of young men from volunteering their services.
On a hillside by the sea, past crumpled houses and a graveyard, more than 100 of them line up, stomachs in, chests out, as men who claim to be generals and sergeants from the former army shout military commands.
None boasts a uniform, but many sport hand-painted T-shirts with the letters “FADH” across the front, short for Haiti’s Demobilized Armed Forces. They all voted for Martelly, hoping to soon be re-employed.
It is not clear who is funding this camp for would-be soldiers. They all claim to be volunteers, though apparently there is enough money to outfit the camp with tents and hire both a doctor and a dentist.
Aubain Larose, who says he’s a former lieutenant and camp spokesman, says the efforts are necessary because the police force that currently provides Haiti’s security isn’t adequate.
“Every time a policeman stops a criminal, there’s another criminal that comes and frees him,” he said. “The police serve criminals and when they don’t, they get shot.
“As military men, we say we can’t accept that the country functions like this.”
None of the recruits at the camp is at pains to move away from Duvalier’s shadow. In the tarpaulin tent that serves as a hillside dressing room, Duvalier’s old black and red party flag hangs alongside portraits of Haiti’s revolutionary heroes from the early 19th century.
Pierre Jeans Rigaud, a 26-year-old recruit, says he’s too young to have any proof of atrocities committed under Duvalier.
Mario Anderson, chief of the Haitian National Police, says he wasn’t aware of the group, and doubts there are former military officers among it.
“Did you ask to see their military badge?” he said. “Anyone can print FADH on an old T-shirt. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Political observers say rather than rebuilding the army, Martelly’s priority must be speeding up the country’s multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort.
That means his administration must make progress building houses for the more than 600,000 people still living in settlements; stem a cholera epidemic that threatens to spread during the rainy and hurricane seasons; and strengthen the judiciary.
With files from the Associated Press