The AmericasAmericas view
Back to the future
Sep 30th 2011, 22:00 by P.B.
“WHAT awful memories! What corpses!…What dramas, often bloody, we have known!” So ruminated Le Nouvelliste, a newspaper in Haiti, over a government plan unveiled this week to restore the Haitian army. According to a document circulating in foreign embassies and obtained by the Associated Press, the newly reconstituted army would start recruiting next month, build to 3,500 troops, and be operational within three years. It is unclear where the $95m needed in start-up costs and pension payments to decommissioned soldiers would come from.
A new army might seem a curious expenditure for a desperately poor country trying to rebuild itself after suffering a devastating earthquake in January 2010. But the idea may resonate with Haitians, who in the past year have grown increasingly frustrated with Minustah, the 12,000-member UN peacekeeping force that has been in the country since 2004 at a cost of nearly $800m this year. The cholera epidemic that has so far sickened more than half a million people was probably brought to the country by Minustah soldiers from the Indian subcontinent, and a group of Uruguayan peacekeepers were recently accused of rape. Michel Martelly, Haiti’s new president, argued this week that creating a domestic force was a necessary first step to replacing Minustah. But he has backtracked from his promise to draw down the peacekeeping force on the grounds that the government cannot yet provide sufficient security.
Judging from the immediate reaction, the plan will face plenty of obstacles. Officially, the new army will be tasked with benign roles like border patrol, job creation, and maintaining public order. But it would reportedly also establish a new intelligence service that would put “the media, casinos, hotels, and brothels” under surveillance, recalling the spectre of repression from Haiti’s 1957-86 dictatorship. A senator from the ruling party pointed out that an army would require funding from other countries, making Haiti even more vulnerable to foreign influence. And the head of the Haitian police complained that his own institution doesn’t have enough money to recruit and promote officers.
Moreover, critics say that the army has historically done little but brutalise its own citizenry and foment instability. Depending on how one counts, Haiti has undergone approximately 33 coups d’etat over its 207 years of existence. Many were hatched in military barracks and commanders’ offices. Indeed, 20 years ago today, the Haitian army led a coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, and followed it up with ugly reprisals against his supporters. When Mr Aristide was restored to power three years later, he quickly disbanded the army, although it was not constitutionally abolished. “It’s above all a repressive force against the Haitian people,” said Yannick Etienne, a labour organiser. “It won’t be an army that defends the interest of the nation.”
In the 1990s Mr Martelly expressed sympathy for the coup against Mr Aristide. During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr Martelly’s opponents accused him of being a reactionary with little regard for civil and political rights. His choice of priorities early in his term suggests those warnings should not have gone unheeded.
Reprinted from The Economist Magazine of September 30, 2011.