PORT-AU-PRINCE/MIAMI (Reuters) - No one disputes that Haiti needs battalions of builders, developers and investors to help it rise from the ruins of last year’s earthquake.
But does it need a gun-toting Haitian army?
With debris from the catastrophe still clogging Haiti’s capital and nearby towns, a plan by President Michel Martelly to bring back to life an armed forces disbanded 16 years ago is triggering potentially divisive political and social tremors.
Critics at home and abroad question the need to revive an entity associated with corruption, coups, abuse and killings in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest and most volatile state.
Major western donors, which fund a U.N. peacekeeping force of more than 12,000 in Haiti and are also shouldering the Caribbean nation’s reconstruction burden after the 2010 earthquake, are balking at the idea of having to finance and train a reconstituted army.
“Given the history of Haiti’s military, their existence alone could be considered a threat to security,” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank, told Reuters.
“A brigade of construction workers would do far more good,” the Miami Herald said in an editorial this week, reflecting a chorus of foreign opposition to Martelly’s army plan.
Major donors like the United States, Canada and the United Nations acknowledge that Haiti has the sovereign right to have its own army, but have strongly signaled they feel there are more important reconstruction priorities to attend to.
This includes the urgent task of rehousing around half a million homeless quake victims still living in precarious tent camps in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince, and an ongoing cholera epidemic that has killed more than 6,700 Haitians.
Despite the negative reaction, Martelly, a shaven-headed former pop star and charismatic nationalist elected in March, is pushing ahead with fulfilling a campaign promise to restore the Haitian army as part of an ambitious program to rebrand development basket case Haiti as a Caribbean success story.
He is expected to formally announce the army’s restoration on Friday, Armed Forces Day, commemorating an 1803 battle in which rebels defeated French colonial forces and opened the way for Haiti to become the first independent black republic.
The Haitian army was abolished in 1995 by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-wing populist who was ousted by a military coup in 1991 only months into his first presidency.
Martelly’s draft plans to restore the army and build it into a 3,500-strong force at an initial cost of $95 million have circulated in recent weeks, along with a proposal for a national spy service.
“The force will be set up, but it won’t be done with any rush,” Martelly said in a recent interview with state television.
He said his government would first ensure it created the necessary military infrastructure and obtained equipment and weaponry, blocked at the moment by remaining U.S. restrictions on arms exports to Haiti. “If we have an army and we have no weapons, we don’t have an army,” Martelly said.
This has not stopped enthusiastic prospective recruits from training in makeshift assault courses run by ex-soldiers.
Martelly argues Haiti needs its own defense force to protect its national borders and eventually take over from the U.N. peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH), whose image has been tarnished by recent scandals. MINUSTAH is already reducing its numbers amid hopes it can be withdrawn in the next few years.
The president has tapped into popular resentment against the presence since 2004 of MINUSTAH, which some Haitians view as foreign occupiers in a land proud to be the world’s first black republic born in 1804 out of a bloody slave revolt.
“If they say we don’t need an army, I wonder why we have foreign soldiers on our soil,” said Maxo Benoit, a 24-year-old medical student in Port-au-Prince.
Anger against the international peacekeepers, already simmering over evidence that Nepalese U.N. troops brought the deadly cholera epidemic to the quake-ravaged nation, increased after some Uruguayan troops were accused in September of raping a Haitian man. The U.N. is investigating the incident.
“It does seem Martelly has sought to channel anti-MINUSTAH sentiment to bolster support for the reactivation of the armed forces,” Weisbrot said, but he added that the move could backfire, because of internal divisions over the army plan.
“The risk is that with this move, Haiti’s bitter, longstanding divisions, which are never far from the surface, could come back with a vengeance,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told Reuters.
Haiti expert Robert Fatton of the University of Virginia said in a recent academic paper shared with Reuters it seemed powerful sectors in the elite and political class supported Martelly’s initiative.
Fatton recalled that Haiti’s history was still stained with the bloody memories of feared private militias: the dreaded Tonton Macoutes of former father and son dictators Francois ‘Papa Doc’ and Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, and the “chimeres’ gangs that intimidated opponents of Aristide.
“I am afraid a new army and a spy agency are likely to revive the seeds of authoritarianism still germinating in the Haitian political terrain,” he wrote in a paper to the Haitian Studies Association of the University of the West Indies.
“The strong likelihood is that (they) would end up devouring scarce resources, stamping out dissent, silencing opponents, and ultimately becoming a tool of internal repression,” Fatton added.
Victims of previous abuses by the old military have echoed these fears, as have some Haitian lawmakers.
With donor financing, the United Nations is already training a renovated Haitian National Police, which has expanded to 10,000, although experts believe its number will need to be doubled to be able to effectively keep the peace by itself.
“The way forward is really to focus on the Haitian National Police and their being able to get stronger and larger and more capable at doing their jobs,” a senior U.S. official said last month when asked about Martelly’s plan to revive the army.
Fatton and other analysts said Haiti’s main security threat was not an external aggressor but crime, including transnational drug-trafficking gangs, and that this should be the responsibility of the expanding police force.
Despite its unpopularity, the U.N. peacekeeping mission was important, Fatton said: “It is at the moment the only force that can keep a relative sense of security in the country.”
He said Martelly’s determined insistence on pursuing the army’s restoration could rekindle fears that surfaced during his election campaign about his links with former military figures and about a potential messianic authoritarian streak.
The former entertainer swept to his March election victory with an energetic message of change carried in his campaign slogan “Tet-Kale,” a Creole play on words that invokes Martelly’s shaven head and also signifies “all the way.”
“The danger is Martelly may assume that his electoral triumph and his current popularity, as well as his image as a man of action, will give him carte blanche to do as he pleases ... To that extent (Martelly)’s rise to the presidency raises questions about Haiti’s democratic future,” Fatton wrote.
But for some jobless young Haitians, a new army offers hope: “Maybe I can be one of the soldiers,” said Jonel Metelus, a resident of Port-au-Prince’s poor Martissant neighborhood. (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Eric Walsh)