Security in Haiti: as Precarious as Ever

US commitment is wobbly, but concern about renewed refugee flows remains high

The firefight near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 19 was a shock, but not that much of a surprise. It was a flash of heat lightning, a small explosion of pent-up difficulty as Haiti copes with abject poverty, unfamiliar democracy, menacing opposition, and a legacy of lawlessness left by generations of political corruption.

Two carloads of armed men opened fire on police headquarters, where 20 members of a rightist political party were being held. They were former soldiers in the Haitian Army that was disbanded by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he returned to power in October 1994. The next day, a high-level official of the same party, closely associated with the former military, was shot dead in his house by unknown assailants.

The ingredients of trouble are recognizable. The Haitian armed forces, some 7,000 strong, were enforcers for a long line of dictators. They cowed the population with murder and torture, assisted by militias and "attachs," armed thugs above the law. Today they are unemployed, their prospects even bleaker than those of the estimated 80 percent without regular work in Haiti.

However, they have weapons; the country is awash in guns. Among other remnants of the old privilege, they resent what has happened. Nevertheless, they are no threat to the government as long as a United Nations and United States security presence is in place. When the UN Security Council recently authorized a new UN support mission in Haiti until Nov. 30, at the strong urging of President Ren Prval, Haiti's ambassador reported that security remained precarious. Armed groups, he said, still roamed the country, living off drug trafficking and other crimes. Eight members of the national police had been killed; elements of the former government, while not an overt threat, must still be taken seriously.

The key to stability, the prerequisite for democracy and economic recovery, is the Haitian National Police. Haiti never had a police force that operated under the rule of law and was committed to human rights and protection of the people. The US, Canada, and France have taken the lead in training a force of 6,000, starting in earnest a year ago. Progress has been agonizingly slow. The country's staggering illiteracy yields recruits unprepared in every way. They must also shed old ways. Supervisors find too many of them trigger-happy, swaggering with their weapons off duty, and prone to violence. All this is part of a justice system still in shambles.

Funds are short mainly because donor countries, which have pledged $1.2 billion, are holding back. And so are international financial institutions like the World Bank. They are waiting for the privatization of nine large state enterprises like flour milling and electric power which, while defective as public service, had been cash cows for the previous regimes and their economic elites. Also, unlike 1986, when 30 years of Duvalier rule ended and exiles rushed home with hope, money, and talent, there has been no surge of returnees and investment. The new parliament is stalled over privatization and badly needed civil-service reform. Democracy has been planted, but it needs to grow.

For the first time ever, a free election led to an unchallenged transfer of power when Mr. Aristide turned the presidency over to his old friend Mr. Prval last February. Without question, the charismatic Aristide remains the most popular figure, and it is assumed that he is preparing the ground to run for reelection at the first constitutional opportunity in December 2000. Meanwhile, he is not visibly undercutting Prval; but neither is he being much help. He opposes privatization as depriving the people of national wealth, and one branch of his Lavalas movement in parliament has blocked the change.

With things as wobbly as they are, UN involvement has been cut back for lack of funds. It remains to be seen how much of the present small security force of 1,300 men will stay on and how much support will continue to go for nation-building. Pre-election Washington is particularly sensitive on this score. The Clinton administration obviously sees the need to ensure stability but is skittish about any commitment that might be an embarrassment at the polls.

The administration has been ambivalent about Haiti from the start. It was, and remains, divided about Aristide. Its reluctance to intervene on his behalf reached a climax of absurdity in October 1993 when a gang of toughs, posturing with weapons on the wharf and shouting "This is Somalia," forced an American troopship carrying US and Canadian police monitors to turn, back from Port-au-Prince. A positively surreal anticlimax followed after Aristide's return when the organizer of the gang found refuge in the United States. To this day Washington has refused a Haitian extradition request. It seems he had been a CIA "asset."

The American force of 20,000 that threw out the Haitian military junta in September 1994 is long gone. But a sense of responsibility is still there - in the shape of 500 Pakistani troops serving as UN peacekeepers (paid for by the United States) and some 300 US Army engineers building roads, schools, and such. They are protected by a small US rapid-reaction force. There is also a bilateral agreement with the Haitian government for several hundred combat troops to fly in for monthly 10-day training exercises.

Not far from Washington's mind is the fact that the United States is hostage to events in Haiti. Disorder or collapse could bring another exodus of boat people, in addition to further tragedy for an old American ward and for the Caribbean.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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