Haiti: Smoldering on the Edge of Chaos

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  • 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 the face of these developments, FADH leaders are gathering strength in a bid to retake political power and restore the repression for which the army could always be counted to provide throughout most of Haiti’s turbulent twentieth century history, the U.N. stabilization force and the international community alike have remained almost deafeningly silent. At the present time, the U.N. presence in Haiti is more myth than fact, while a handful of renegades with a military background, in conjunction with the opposition group of 184, have the clearest access to the Latortue regime and its ability to impact on the daily lives of the population. Within Haiti, international troops drawn principally from the rogue armed forces of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which are better known for the repression of their own citizens during previous eras of military rule than for their nation-building skills, are seemingly paralyzed by inaction. These U.N. forces have made only the paltriest of efforts to preserve order in the face of paramilitary power-grabs by ex-FADH figures like Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Guy Philippe. They have been better at stalking pro-Aristide Lavalas party’s political forces than armed renegade former soldiers.

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?

Among the most alarming signs of military resurgence within the last sixty days was the acquittal on August 17, in a show trial, of former army captain and paramilitary leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain, previously convicted in absentia for the 1993 murder of prominent Aristide supporter Antoine Izmery. This outrageous verdict, achieved under the aegis of Latortue’s disreputable justice minister, Bernard Gousse, was reached after a ludicrously brief overnight trial in which the prosecution called only one witness who proved to be entirely irrelevant to the case. This earned for the interim government stinging indictments on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as widespread denunciations from human rights organizations, and even from the State Department, which bears much of the blame for the current dysfunctional rule of the island. However, the subsequent rash of self-serving individual power plays on the part of the ex-soldiers, and the government’s utter unwillingness to confront or even denounce such challenges to state authority, has received virtually no attention outside of Haiti. This development has to be rightfully considered part of the same dangerous phenomenon of the growing power of former military figures like Chamblain, as well as sly ideologues like the smiling Justice Minister Gousse, who was clearly complicit in orchestrating Chamblain’s acquittal.

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 of the most pathetic Government in the Caribbean

Given these pro-military signals on the part of the Latortue government, which consistently has demonstrated its sympathy for former military leaders at the same time it officially rejects the idea of reconstituting the armed forces on the grounds that such a momentous step should be taken only by the next elected government, it is hardly surprising that bands of former soldiers are making ever more far-fetched bids for power in cities across Haiti. On August 17, five officers of the national police’s riot squad (CIMO) returned to their Port-au-Prince headquarters asserting that a group wearing uniforms of the disbanded military had attacked them and seized their weapons and uniforms. Subsequently, Radio Kiskeya reported that other CIMO officers have accused the government-appointed director of the National Police Administration and former military figure, Destorel Germain, of organizing the attack along with a number of demobilized soldiers seeking reinstatement, an accusation that raises the specter of collaboration between some of the more predatory elements of the police force and bands of ex-soldiers, in the latter’s fight for legal status.

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

The government’s show of force in Saint-Marc on September 7 hardly deterred the ex-soldiers in their attempts to establish themselves as a rival security force. Also, on September 7 in Port-au-Prince, two ex-soldiers, reportedly from Petit-Goave, were shot and killed by riot police near the Prime Minister’s office in Musseau after firing at a police station. According to Police Commissioner Fritz Gerald Appolon, the two were riding in a seized police vehicle that had been reconfigured as an army vehicle, and were fatally wounded after one of them shot at a police officer who had called upon him to lay down his weapon. Ravix denounced the incident as an “assassination” and called for retaliation across the country. The following day, in response, a group of ex-soldiers attacked the police station in Hinche and hundreds of former FADH and their supporters from other anti-Aristide factions paraded in Cap-Haitien demanding ten years of back-pay. These former soldiers already had begun arrogating police functions inside of Cap-Haitien to themselves, including surveillance patrols. In Petit-Goave, rebels took four police officers hostage and seized their weapons, though they were released later that day.

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

At the same time that the government has shown itself utterly incapable of (or uninterested in) controlling the rebel bands, the U.N. Stabilization Mission (MINUSTHAH) has disavowed itself of any responsibility in dealing with the ex-soldiers. Spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou declared, “We have no comment on the subject because it is a government problem. It is not a problem of the MINUSTHA. This is a Haitian affair.” As astounding as this statement appears, given that among the principal points of MINUSTAH’S mandate are the disarmament of armed factions – of which the ex-soldiers are currently the most powerful – and the establishment of a climate of security in advance of national elections on the island is a must, the de facto acknowledgement of a stalemate when it comes to security issues is an all too accurate description of the current limitations of the undersized U.N. force now in Haiti. To date, only 2,755 of an authorized 6,700 U.N. troops have arrived in Haiti, making deployments in the north and east of the country impossible, and only a third of the 1,622 civilian police officers authorized have been deployed. Thus the U.N. is unable to maintain a security presence in many of the more remote regions of the countryside, and has yet to launch the disarmament program that is a fundamental prerequisite for the reestablishment of some measure of political stability.

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: Washington, New York Turn Their Eyes Away from Port-au-Prince
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Haiti is the extraordinary indifference, aside from some storm-related humanitarian aide in response to the natural catastrophe that just hit Haiti, that has been exhibited by the international community in the face of this creeping coup being executed by the former FADH. The Security Council issued only an anemic statement on September 10 in which it stressed “the urgency of disbanding and disarming all illegal armed groups,” but offered not even the whisper of a commitment to ensure that this task is in fact achieved. The Organization of American States has remained silent, as has the State Department, and much of the Caribbean Community, which over the past six months had taken the most courageous stands on unfolding events in Haiti. CARICOM is now riven by internal divisions over whether to readmit the Latortue government into CARICOM.

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.