Haiti says it has a new army to fight new world problems like cybersecurity and disasters brought on by climate change.
But Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s decision to install army leaders on Tuesday tainted by human rights abuses — former soldiers who were members of the same disbanded military that led the 1991 coup against the country’s first democratically elected president — is stirring fears that Haiti hasn’t learned from its past.
“It is appalling,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the powerful Vermont Democrat and author of the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. foreign assistance to known human rights abusers. “We should not support an institution led by people with their history. It is an example of what is wrong in Haiti.”
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Earlier this month, Haiti’s Ministry of Defense announced the appointment of six former soldiers to head the high command of the recently reinstated Armed Forces of Haiti, or FAD’H.
All six, who are in their sixties, once had their assets frozen by the U.S. as punishment for supporting the military coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And one, Col. Jean Robert Gabriel, a spokesman for coup leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras, was accused of masterminding the 1994 killing of thousands of Aristide supporters in a predawn military-linked raid in the seaside shantytown of Raboteau in Gonaives.
The massacre was among the catalysts for the Clinton administration to toughen its Haiti policy and restore Aristide to power in 1994.
Haiti Defense Minister Hervé Denis, who has made several trips to Washington in hopes of getting support from the Trump administration for the new army, insists that the army leaders have been vetted and “every member is clean of human rights violations and illicit [trafficking].” Haiti, he said, “needs experienced people for the new army.”
“Those former high ranking officers are the only ones with that kind of experience” to help younger officers, Denis said in an email. “Otherwise, we can put in danger the future of the new corps.”
But not everyone is buying it.
“I continue to question why, with so many other needs, Haiti would pursue creating an army,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. “Choosing six people sanctioned by the U.S. to lead it only confirms I was right to oppose it.”
Even Haiti’s former caretaker prime minister, Gérard Latortue, who oversaw the demobilization of the ex-soldiers but supports the return of the army, calls the appointments “a bad sign.”
“If you want to come with an army, you have to have new people, not the same old people,” said Latortue, who during his 2004-2006 tenure fought to get some ex-soldiers integrated into the Haiti National Police over the objections of the U.S.
Former Police Chief Mario Andrésol, who was a young military officer in 1995 when the Armed Forces of Haiti was finally disbanded under U.S. pressure, took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the decision.
“A farce,” Andrésol tweeted in French. “No lesson, it seems, was taken from the 1995 debacle.”
The Office of International Lawyers in Haiti along with its Boston-based partner, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said Haitian leaders made the appointments “without regard for the many innocent victims of the bloody coup of September 30, 1991” and the Raboteau massacre.
The human rights group, which helped Haitian prosecutors in the Raboteau case, said in a press release that the re-mobilized army “is a militia whose hidden mission is to have the Haitian people relive the darkest hours” of the bloody reign of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the dictator who ruled Haiti from 1971 until his 1986 exile.
When the leaders of the killings at Raboteau went on trial in 2000, the prosecution was considered a landmark human rights case in a country where the judiciary isn’t independent and the military held considerable sway despite its brutal history. Some 53 army and paramilitary leaders were convicted for crimes ranging from criminal conspiracy to torture and murder. Gabriel, who has been named assistant chief of staff in the new army, was living in exile at the time of the trial and was among 37 convicted in absentia.
That conviction, along with others, was later overturned in a 2006 court ruling during the country’s interim government after Aristide, a former priest, was forced from power a second time.
Jeb Sprague, who investigated the Raboteau massacre and the role of military and paramilitary groups in Haiti’s coups for his book, “Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti,” said rebuilding the military apparatus has always been the central motivation for some factions in Haiti.
“The ultimate goal for some of the central power players has been to regain this mechanism for internal repression,” said Sprague, who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
And despite the government’s attempts to distance the new high command from the old military junta, at least two members of the new leadership — Gabriel and new chief of staff, Sadrac Saintil — were part of Cédras’ high command.
“Haiti risks repeating past errors,” Sprague said.
It is precisely this fear that had long guided the U.S.’s opposition to the army’s restoration. After Aristide was ousted a second time in a bloody 2004 coup led by paramilitary leaders, many ex-army soldiers occupied provincial cities around the country while their human rights convictions were dropped in controversial court hearings.
With the international community determined to rebuild the decimated and feeble Haitian police force, the U.S. used its enormous leverage over the fragile Latortue government to thwart plans to reinstate the army.
Not only could Haiti not afford a second and competing security force, the U.S. warned, but the army’s history of coups, repression and drug-trafficking meant it would not win support from outside the country.
That argument, however, has waned over the years amid the U.S.’s declining influence over Haitian leaders and divisions within the international community over whether Haiti should have an army. Many of the current 150 enlistees, for example, have been trained in Ecuador.
Even within the U.S., the position on reestablishment of the army seems to have softened, even if there is no appetite to offer immediate help or a clear position on the army, as there has been in years past.
“Haiti is a sovereign country and has taken the decision to augment its small armed forces with a mission to respond to natural disasters, humanitarian assistance, and border security. The United States will continue its ongoing discussions with the Haitian Ministry of Defense before determining future cooperation,” a State Department spokesperson said.
While Haiti has budgeted $8.5 million for the army this year, the Haiti National Police remains a priority for the United States, which has warned Haitian officials that the military cannot take resources away from the police or endanger its existence. Along with other donors, the U.S. provides 45 percent of the funding for the police force, which has roughly 14,000 officers for 11 million people.
But, for some in Haiti, the new military raises the specter of the old military, a force that roamed the streets of Haiti in the ’80s and ’90s crushing dissent. For others, it’s a necessary development as Haiti seeks to chart its own course and respond to its repeated disasters.
“There are a lot of misgivings about this,” said James B. Foley, who oversaw the buildup of the Haitian National Police and demobilization of former soldiers as U.S. ambassador to Haiti.
“Why not put the resources into the police? It is of course Haiti’s sovereign decision, but there are serious questions about the makeup of the leadership, the mandate and the areas of operations,” he said about the reestablished army. “If there is no credibility and transparency on those issues then people have every right to be concerned.”
Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees U.S. foreign assistance, said while the senator’s office has heard some of the arguments put forth by supporters on why Haiti needs an army — to respond to natural disasters and police the country’s borders, among them — dealing with such calamities doesn’t require an army, but can be carried out by properly trained civilians and police.
“We’ve not heard a credible case for why Haiti needs an army given all of its other problems,” Rieser said. “The history of the army in Haiti is abysmal. It literally functioned as a criminal enterprise, and the people of that country do not need that repeated.”