Army ups ante in Haitian power struggle


Armed group is waging a brazen campaign aimed at stoking public anger at the continued presence of the 10,000-strong UN mission in Haiti and inviting violent conflict with authorities, write MICHAEL NORBYand BRIAN FITZPATRICKin Port-au-Prince

IN THE overgrown parade grounds of a long-abandoned military base outside Port-au-Prince, the most recent player in the surreal battle for the hearts and minds of the Haitian people delivers a chilling message.

Flanked by 150 uniformed men, Larose Aubin seems ready to plunge the battered nation into utter chaos.

Aubin, an animated former army sergeant, speaks for a group of one-time soldiers and younger recruits calling for the immediate return of the Haitian Armed Forces (FAd’H), 17 years after the notoriously brutal military was scrapped.

The rogue movement began in earnest after the May 2011 inauguration of president Michel Martelly, who had made the army’s return a pillar of his election campaign.

When it became clear, however, that remobilisation would take several years and that the majority would not be included, the disgruntled group seized old army installations across the country and issued demands. Mocking government attempts to pay them off, they say the time for talk is over.

“We’re not joking around,” says Aubin. “We’re going to come with force and with the population, and we’ll get what we’re looking for. Even if we lose our lives, we will fight. They can’t kill us all.”

Well-armed and highly visible as they patrol the nation’s cities in military fatigues, the 3,000- strong group claims to be ready to bring peace and security to Haiti; a new army that should not be feared. However, the rhetoric of another former sergeant, Yves Jeudy, tells a different story, as he earmarks the upcoming Haitian Flag Day holiday as a deadline.

“After May 18th, if the government hasn’t done anything, they will see what happens,” he declares. “We’re not going back and they need to give us an answer quick.”

This final challenge comes after a brazen campaign aimed at stoking public anger at the continued presence of the 10,000-strong United Nations stabilisation mission in Haiti, which was put in place after the overthrow of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

On April 19th, the group amplified its intentions as 50 men – some armed with grenades – arrived at parliament and disrupted a legislative session to ratify prime minister Laurent Lamothe.

No confrontation occurred but the inaction of the UN mission and the Haitian national police (PNH) was a major embarrassment. The ragtag army took full advantage of the impunity, and has now used the resulting traction and sense of legitimacy to invite a violent confrontation with authorities.

This cavalier approach is deliberate and seeks to manipulate the situation whereby the UN mission is viewed by many as an occupying force installed to entrench the 2004 coup against Aristide.

Shortly after their arrival, anger at the peacekeepers began to grow after violent incursions into the Port-au-Prince slums of Cité Soleil and Bel-Air, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Instances of abuse and extreme negligence have compounded matters. In March, for example, two Pakistani peacekeepers were convicted of the January 20th rape of a 14-year-old boy in the town of Gonaïves, and several similar claims have emerged.

IN OCTOBER 2010, Haiti suffered its first ever cholera outbreak. Since then 7,000 people have died and over half a million have become ill. Overwhelming evidence suggests that troops from Nepal brought the disease to Haiti, but the UN mission has yet to officially accept responsibility.

Against this backdrop, it’s understandable that some would favour the reinstatement of the dreaded army over “foreigners“, as Aubin claims they do. Wary that this hostility could ignite a public backlash, it’s likewise easy to see why the UN mission is reluctant to deploy chapter seven of the UN charter, which allows military action when peace is threatened.

Finally testing the waters last Sunday, however, a joint Haitian police/UN operation saw checkpoints set up in Port-au- Prince and other towns, and two armed men in military uniforms were arrested. These were the first detentions since the armed gangs began patrolling cities. The move was a subtle response, aimed at both sending a message to the army camps and gauging the public’s reaction, yet it signals the opening of a potentially dangerous new chapter.

“Our goal remains to support the PNH to disarm those in possession of illegal firearms,” said UN mission spokesman Lt Cmdr Jim Hoeft, offering an ambiguous explanation of the arrests.

Though Hoeft declined to discuss exactly when a decision was made to begin flexing muscles, he did say that UN troops were “always ready for actions like these” and that “some operations are predetermined, some are based on operational observations”.

The mood of the people will most likely dictate the strategy of both sides as the situation begins to boil. With atrocious social conditions prevalent and the country’s fledgling democracy apparently bludgeoned into submission, for some, what has been referred to as “option chaos” may look more and more appealing.

ONLY A year in office, Martelly has lurched from one crisis to the next. Lamothe was installed as prime minister last week, the president’s fourth choice for the job after lawmakers rejected two earlier nominees. Gary Conille was approved for the role in October, but resigned after just four months after his plan to audit reconstruction contracts drew the ire of the president.

Martelly’s election victory itself was soiled by the forced exclusion of Haiti’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas, and a dismal turnout of just 24 per cent. The technicality used by Haiti’s electoral council to exclude the party was that it had submitted improper documents.

To put into perspective what this expulsion meant: In December 1990, Aristide was elected with 67 per cent of the vote under the banner of the Lavalas movement. In December 1995, another Lavalas candidate, René Préval, was elected with 88 per cent of the vote.

By then representing Fanmi Lavalas – which had emerged from a split in the movement – Aristide was re-elected in November 2000 with a 92 per cent total. Finally, in February 2006, Préval won 51 per cent of votes, also backed by Fanmi Lavalas.

In short, though it is accepted that each election result since 1990 has grown steadily more unreliable, the broader Lavalas movement has clearly served as the voice of the Haitian poor for over two decades. Now, in a country where 80 per cent of the population lives on $2 or less a day, it appears that this platform does not fit the post-earthquake landscape.

“The people no longer believe that Haiti will have the opportunity to have a democracy,“ said Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

“Their options are now local gangs, the UN, the return of the army, or some kind of clientelism relationship with the government. That’s what they think is realistic.“

In the face of criticism from western diplomats and with a dubious mandate, Martelly’s plans to create a 3,500-strong army has evoked memories of the Haitian Armed Forces and its dreaded Tonton Macoutes death squads, used by the decades-long Duvalier dictatorships to crush dissent.

In more recent times, Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti paramilitaries helped Gen Raoul Cédras’s military junta – which overthrew the first Aristide government – kill an estimated 3,000 people between 1991 and 1994.

MARTELLY CLAIMS the force is needed to deal with border security and help his struggling police, but critics say there are far more pressing issues facing the nation. Either way, the half-hearted attempts to disarm the “soldiers” has led to widespread speculation in Haiti, including theories that question the president’s true intentions. Others cite political opportunists or outside interests as possible benefactors of the impending chaos.

The group has new trucks and uniforms, and enough fuel and provisions to sustain a prolonged standoff; clearly someone of influence is pulling the strings.

Georges Michel, a member of the commission appointed by Martelly to blueprint the army’s return, says the possibility of this crisis materialising was forecast to the president in a January 1st report, and fears the consequences of inaction may be severe.

“The people are with them,“ he said of the holdouts. “This would be a major catastrophe for Martelly if he calls upon Minustah [UN mission] to crack down on them – they will be seen as heroes and Martelly as the villain.“

In Gonaïves, a three-hour drive north of Port-au-Prince, witnesses to the brutality of the Haitian military are not so sympathetic. We’re in the seaside slum of Raboteau where, at around 4am on April 22nd, 1994, over 100 FAd’H soldiers and their Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti paramilitary henchmen attacked unsuspecting residents, leaving an estimated 26 to 50 people dead.

From the edge of the village, we walk past the stagnant orange-tinged salt mines to the shoreline - the same 300-yard route many of the victims thought would take them to safety exactly 18 years ago. The horror is fresh in the memories of the 12 survivors who accompany us; their stories a chilling reminder of an obscene barbarism.

“The victims were men and women, girls and boys,” recalls Henry-Claude Elismé. “Some of the dead were eaten by pigs and wild dogs. We don’t really know how many died in total because the army stayed for days, digging holes, dumping bodies on top of each other.”

RABOTEAU, SEEN as a pro-democracy safe haven, was punished for its opposition to the Cédras junta, which was barely clinging to power in the face of international isolation. Troops burst into houses as people slept, beating and torturing some and gunning down anyone who ran.

Those who survived the blind sprint to the sea leapt into fishing boats for the safety of the ocean, only to be slaughtered by troops positioned in 13 small boats just offshore. They then used the next several days to cover their tracks.

The Cédras regime fell soon after, as did the FAd’H, which Aristide disbanded upon being reinstated after US intervention. In Raboteau, at least, the victims of one of the final atrocities of the army are under no illusions about what a new force would mean.

In Port-au-Prince, where 420,000 people made homeless by the 2010 earthquake still live in horrendous tent cities, impatience is growing. Cholera cases have tripled since the rainy season began a month ago, and access to fresh water or healthcare is sparse. Much of the capital remains a trash-filled wasteland of broken buildings where malnutrition kills and violence is spiralling out of control.

Irwin Stotzky, author of Silencing the Guns in Haiti, served as an adviser to presidents Aristide and Préval and investigated the human rights abuses of the Cédras regime. He says the thought of throwing 3,500 armed men at this problem is obscene.

“The idea that they need an army in the middle of all this is ridiculous,“ he says. “What they need is an educational system, a governmental structure, food, housing.

“Who are they going to fight?“ he asks. “The Haitian army has never fought anybody but Haitians.”