Haiti’s government is making plans to revive the country’s disbanded army, an institution guilty of many of the worst crimes ever perpetrated in the country. At the same time, special police units have been used to drive earthquake victims out of camps.
While civil society and grassroots organizations in Haiti are campaigning against a return to the era of Duvalierist repression, people in the United States should be made aware of our government’s long history with that country’s military and security forces.
It started with the formation of Haiti’s modern military under the U.S. occupation between 1915-1934. The U.S. left only after ensuring the military could be relied on to continue the occupation by proxy. In the early 1960s, U.S. Marines trained the Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded paramilitary force of then dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
When Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, took over in 1971, former U.S. marine instructors trained and equipped a brutal army corps called the Leopards. The instructors worked for a Miami company under CIA contract and U.S. State Department oversight.
Never miss a local story.
The country’s worst human-rights abusers were driven underground with the inauguration of Haiti’s first democratically elected government in February 1991.
Only seven months later, however, military forces in the country ousted the country’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A new paramilitary organization, the FRAPH, launched a wave of terror.
After years of grassroots pressure on the United States and the United Nations to act, Haiti’s democracy was restored in 1994. The country’s army (entwined with the paramilitaries) was disbanded and judicial processes began. Yet U.S. diplomats pressured for the inclusion of some former Haitian military into important positions in the country’s new police force. As Human Rights Watch pointed out in a report at the time, the United States used sectors of Haiti’s revamped security forces against the country’s left-leaning grassroots movement.
By 2000, a group of former soldiers known as the “Ecuadorians” (a group of cadets who had received training in Quito, Ecuador, benefiting from close relations with the United States) demonstrated how U.S. influence on Haiti’s security forces, far from reforming them, had had the opposite effect. In late 2000, this group launched a paramilitary war of attrition on Haiti.
Over time, others joined in support, including some of Haiti’s wealthiest textile factory owners, neo-Duvalierists, a handful of disloyal Haitian government officials, a clique within the Dominican foreign ministry and army, and very likely some kind of support from U.S. and French intelligence agencies — as recently revealed through Freedom Of Information Act documents and interviews with participants.
Using the Dominican Republic as a base, paramilitaries were able to ramp up their murderous operations and, by 2004, played a key role in the coup that ousted Aristide’s second government.
Shortly afterwards, 400 members of the paramilitary force were inserted into a revamped police under close U.S., U.N. and OAS supervision. We now know this also from U.S. Embassy cables revealed through WikiLeaks.
In these cables there is some unease expressed by the U.S. Embassy about the paramilitaries — but never was the basic policy questioned: that men who had perpetrated grave abuses and helped overthrow an elected government could be made into police officers rather than be held accountable for their crimes.
Following the 2010 earthquake and the controversial 2011 election of President Michel Martelly, a campaign has been launched to recreate the country’s army. France has offered to help finance it, while Brazil and Ecuador have offered to help with training.
Congress needs to increase its financial oversight of aid to Haiti making sure that the money appropriated for foreign relations goes to building, not undermining democracy, and justice, not impunity for Duvalierist criminals and their allies. It’s high time that U.S. citizens hold their own officials accountable for their actions in Haiti.
Jeb Sprague is the author of the new book, “Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti.” He is scheduled to speak at Books and Books in Miami on Sept. 27.