Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-HAITI: Disbanded For Abuses, Army Rises Again

Jane Regan

ST. MARC, Haiti, Sep 7 2004 (IPS) - A dozen ex-soldiers from Haiti’s long-disbanded army paraded through the streets of this impoverished port town Monday to the improbable cries of “Long live the Haitian Army!”

The St. Marc show of force came on top of parades and building takeovers in at least a half-dozen Haitian cities since last week.

Groups of heavily armed ex-soldiers now occupy the police stations or other buildings in Petit-Goave, Cap-Haitien, St. Marc, Hinche and many towns in Haiti’s Central Plateau. In some cases they have chased the police out of town. And in at least one town they have taken over the police headquarters, their former barracks, and painted its blue and white walls yellow, the traditional army building colour.

Thus Haiti is once again a tinder box. In addition to the still-armed gangs and the usual collection of criminals, there are now three armed corps deployed around the country: the ex-soldiers, the demoralised and understaffed Haitian National Police force, and about 2,750 United Nations peacekeepers..

And while there have been no direct armed confrontations so far, there have been near-misses.

The interim government has condemned the movement but it has also sent contradictory messages.


Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse last week said the takeovers were “suspicious” and that the ex-soldiers were trying “hurt the prestige and dignity of the state”, but he also said they were welcome to apply for police jobs.

This week, the government set up a new committee to “negotiate” with the soldiers, but it also announced that police and peacekeepers would “imminently” retake control of government buildings.

The U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTHA) would not confirm that.

“We have no comment on the on the subject because it is a government problem. It is not a problem of the MINUSTHA,” spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou told IPS. “This is a Haitian affair.”

Many Haitians agree, but if the airwaves have been burning up with commentary, most reporters and callers have been ambivalent despite the fact that only decade earlier, the khaki-clad soldiers were feared and reviled.

Yesterday, most St. Marcians merely watched the now pudgy but still heavily armed men from their stoops, but several hundred people danced and sang as they escorted the contingent through town right under the noses of the police.

“That’s my army! I remember them!” a lady in her seventies said as she paraded alongside the caravan. “They’re the ones we trust!”

“Call the police, they say they can’t come! No gas!” young men sang during the parade.

Haitians have little respect and even disdain for the young police force – founded in 1994 – which has been criticised for rights abuses and implicated in dozens of drug conspiracies.

“We are here because the population asked us to come,” former First Lt. Wilfrid Corisma told IPS. “We are here to provide people with security. We want our 10 years back salary and we want the army reconstituted.”

The mostly young men around him cheered as his fellow ex-soldiers brandished semi-automatic weapons, M-14s and M-16s, AK-47s and fragmentation hand grenades.

Haiti’s Armed Forces of some 7,200 men and a few women was disbanded by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide almost 10 years ago after the end of the army-led 1991-1994 coup against him, which left between 3,000 and 5,000 people dead. He was returned to power by a U.S.-led invasion of 22,000 soldiers.

That military presence made it possible for him to disband the infamous force which was responsible for decades of torture, murder and coups d’etat. The force had been set up by U.S. Marines early in the century, during the first U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). The army and 515 rural “section chiefs” oversaw a repression machine of spies and thugs that terrorised people with their own tax systems, jails and punishments.

Parliament was supposed to change the constitution and eliminate the army, but in-fighting and incompetence meant that it was never altered.

In late 2002, a band of former soldiers appeared on the Dominican border, running skirmishes into Haiti to attack police and others. Eighteen months later, in February 2004, those men were among the “rebels” who went from city to city attacking police and Aristide supporters and torching government buildings.

Coming on top of two years of civil protests, the movement is credited with helping lead to Aristide’s resignation on Feb. 29, part of what he called “a modern coup d’etat.” (Aristide and others suspect the ex-soldiers had support from U.S. and Dominican government sources.)

The hastily installed provisional government never arrested any of the ex-soldiers or other “rebels” for the February mayhem. Prime Minister Gerard Latortue even called them “freedom fighters,” a comment that caused consternation in Haiti and abroad.

Since Feb. 29, they have manned their own checkpoints, patrolled streets, sometimes in state vehicles, and some have committed petty crimes.

Former “rebel” and ex-Lt. Ramissainthe Ravix, the self-appointed leader of the ex-soldiers movement, has moved from town to town at will.

“The government doesn’t need to reconstitute us,” Ravix told IPS after his men took over the Petit-Goave police station last week. “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.”

Ravix also said that he and other soldiers have no intention of handing in their arms by the Sep. 15 deadline the prime minister announced late last month.

“The deadline does not apply to us because we are in the constitution,” he said.

Dieuseule Pierre, 45, standing by the garbage-strewn shoreline of St. Marc yesterday, said he was not pleased with the reappearance of the army.

“ItâÇÖs as if people forgot what they were like,” the fish-buyer told IPS, shaking his head. “They did a lot of bad things, shot people, forced them into hiding.”

Eliphaite St. Pierre is general secretary of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organisations (POHDH) which brings together nine rights groups. Like many pro-democracy militants, he risked his life struggling against the army during the 1991-1994 coup.

“We totally oppose the return of the Armed Forces,” St. Pierre told IPS. “All throughout history it has been a repressive vehicle, a tool used against the Haitian people.”

St. Pierre said the ambivalence of politicians who previously fought for the army’s dissolution is “very serious”.

“These people just go whichever way the wind is blowing,” he said. “They have no principles.”

As an example he pointed to Gerard Pierre-Charles, head of the People’s Struggle Organisation (OPL) and a former member of the Haitian Unified Communist Party (PUCH). Both parties lost dozens of members and supporters to army repression.

But on the radio this week, Pierre-Charles called for “compromise,” “dialogue” and “moderation”.

Samuel Madistin, who served two terms in parliament, said the ex-soldier problem is part of the wider crisis in Haiti.

“It is symptomatic of the malaise and even general dissatisfaction that the population has with the way the transition is being handled,” the lawyer told IPS.

Human rights continue to be violated, murders and kidnappings plague the country, and recently a renowned rights abuser from the coup era, former soldier and paramilitary leader Jodel Chamblain, was found “innocent” after what most observers agree was sham trial.

“All of this shows that the transition needs to be rethought,” he said. “We need a team of people who can take strong decisions and really address Haiti’s problems. This team of technocrats does not even have minimal popular support.”

It seems that in this perennially impoverished and violence-ridden country, the army does.

As volunteers painted the Petit-Goave police station yellow last week, at least a hundred supporters danced and sang: “Oh Army, oh Army, We were waiting for you! Now we are delivered!”

 
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