Haiti's Army Shifts Toward Reform

After decades of repression, military moves to professionalize force and respect human rights

HAITI'S nearly three-month-old democracy is in the bumpy first stages of its transition from 35 years of dictatorship and military rule. But its successful emergence so far is due to more than a courageous public and international supporters. It has - most of all - required the cooperation of the Haitian Army.

Taking its own first transition steps, the Army appears to be shifting from decades of suppressing democracy, toward mild, if not necessarily whole-hearted support for it, political analysts and diplomats here say.

These observers point to signs that the Haitian military has already made limited headway toward reform, and that its leadership appears to favor a historic change from its traditional role as a dictator's praetorian guard.

Two of the clearest indications of change are moves to separate the police from the Army and to make the military a professional force. Under its commander-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, the military seems to be making progress toward becoming a respected institution.

"My role is defined according to the Constitution," he says in an interview. In his office across from the National Palace, he affirms: "I'm here to prepare the Army to do that, apolitically and professionally. I don't want this institution used inappropriately."

Abraham's key role

The 51-year-old general is a career officer with more than 30 years in the Haitian Armed Forces (FADH). He has held his current post since March 1990. What distinguishes him from past military leaders is not so much his stately good looks and mild manner as his apparent commitment to his stated goals.

It will, of course, take much more than good intentions and words to convince Haiti's populace. Skeptics abound.

During the months after the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in December and before he took office in February, the Army demonstrated a semblance of goodwill. Skeptics say it was international pressure that forced the Army to respect democratic processes and human rights. It did, nonetheless, provide tight security during the electoral period and inaugural ceremonies.

Public opinion was shaken after the Army refused last July to arrest Roger Lafontant, a central figure in the country's last dictorship. But then the Army thwarted his January coup attempt and Lafontant now awaits trial. Many insist the Army acted out of fear of popular revenge.

"If that's true, Abraham's held up his masquerade an awfully long time," says one government official. Even so, undoing decades of corruption and political infighting has not been easy.

"The Army is emerging from politics into a formal institution, showing loyalty to the democratic process," says a high-ranking United States official here. The Army has embarked on a successful campaign to control crime that has allowed citizens to stroll freely again in the evenings for the first time in two years. There have been numerous drug arrests, and small gangs have been exposed and arrested.

"What's happened with the Army has been very positive," says Herold Jean-Francois director of the national television station. "They are doing their best to be part of a structure of change."

The recent transition separating the nation's rural sheriffs from military jurisdiction, and putting that force under the Ministry of Justice "went far smoother than I would have thought," Mr. Jean-Francois says.

One of the next reforms will be the constitutionally-required separation of police and Army.

"The previous Army represented a danger to the people," says Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, who was jailed in 1980 and beaten during his 3 1/2 month imprisonment two years ago.

"What's important now is to make the country follow the principles of the law," the mayor says. "But to divide the Army and the police is a logistical problem. The infrastructure of the military is in the hands of the Army, but the majority of those in the institution prefer to be police because that's how they make money: illegal arrests, repression."

Curing Army corruption

One way to ease the temptation of extorting money from the public is to improve conditions within the military. According to the president, $6 million in international aid from Germany is earmarked for the Army. Haiti has also requested $2 million from the US for nonlethal military aid.

"My first priority for dispersing the money will be to improve living conditions," Abraham says. "I would also like to improve the training of my men, because that's what gives us professionalism. When each soldier and policeman knows the rights of citizens, and respects this, the public in turn will respect them."

With conditions dire in this country, $8 million seems a small sum for military reform. A colonel who requested anonymity says that amount will not cover even a communications system.

"What is more important than money," he says, "is setting up a new system of communication between the law and the people. Political intervention within the Army must be avoided. We need to have good military direction, not political exploitation."

Many who were victimized by the Army under prior regimes are predictably slow to embrace this "new" Army.

"There is a question of who is serious [about reform] in the Army and how they are treated," says Marino Etienne, Director of Security for the National Port Authority, and a former member of FADH. Mr. Etienne was jailed for political reasons by military dictator Prosper Avril in 1988. He was arrested again along with Mayor Paul two years ago. Today he still has a slight hearing loss that occurred because of prison beatings by former military colleagues.

Division of opinion

"Will they be isolated from responsible posts or encouraged to take more responsibility? None of this is clear yet," Mr. Etienne says. "There are some soldiers who want change, but there are still those who function outside the law. It comes down to a question of who is stronger."

Meanwhile, the president is acting on the same good faith he sees the military displaying. Last month he opened a dormitory for 200 soldiers, providing beds and accessories such as soap, toothbrushes and towels. Today the 7,000 man Army makes up most of the FADH. There is also a naval and air force division.

"The rank-and-file soldiers want to be supported by the people," Abraham says. "After all, that's where they come from. It's who they live with. When someone becomes a serviceman, he can't turn against his own kind."

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