Haiti

As Haiti unravels, the last U.N. peacekeepers exit after 15 years

When the United Nations deployed 6,200 blue-helmet soldiers and 1,200 police officers in 2004 to restore order in an unruly Haiti, ruthless armed gangs freely roamed the streets, corruption ran rampant in the judiciary and the country’s volatile politics were in a free fall.

Meanwhile, the Haiti National Police, awash in drug-trafficking and corruption allegations, numbered no more than 2,500 out of the 6,300 the U.N. had trained years earlier and two-thirds of its 182 police stations had been vandalized and burned.

As the U.N. Security Council permanently ends its 15-year peacekeeping presence in Haiti Tuesday, and transitions to a much smaller special political mission featuring human rights monitors and 25 police advisers instead of the specialized, heavily armed U.N. foreign police units that had helped stabilize the country, the Haiti National Police force boasts 15,404 officers and a full-time police presence in every one of Haiti’s 145 counties.

For a nation of approximately 11 million residents, that amounts to 1.35 police officers per every 1,000 people in a country roughly the size of Maryland. The number is below the U.N.’s objective and international standards.

The end of the peacekeeping presence comes as Haiti idles on the the verge of collapse. The government currently enjoys no real popular support, the bicameral Parliament is soon to be non-functional with just 19 senators, and the overwhelmed police force is struggling to contain violent anti-government protests demanding the departure of President Jovenel Moïse.

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Police drive past burning tires lit by anti-government protesters on a road leading to the United Nations headquarters, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Rebecca Blackwell AP

The country is, by all accounts, engulfed in one of its worst social, political and economic meltdowns in years. And the U.N., driven by initial pressure from the United Kingdom with the United States and others supporting it, is exiting.

“They came with the objective of stabilizing the country and they failed,” Fritz Bernard Craan, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Haiti, said. “They failed because we are now in a crisis 15 years after that is very similar to the one we had in 2004.

“We have a president who is being contested like the president was in 2004. We have a population in the street. We have an economic situation that is worse than it was in 2004 and we have a police force that has increased in numbers but not in effectiveness, and we have a justice system that is not working,” Craan said. “The justice system is just as corrupt as it was in 2004.“

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The situation is so volatile that the Supreme Court, located next to the presidential palace, was forced to nix tradition last week and cancel a ceremony featuring Moïse reopening the country’s courts because security could not be guaranteed. And the U.N., which had planned to have a ceremony in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday to mark the end of its peacekeepers, also quietly canceled.

The U.N. began withdrawing military soldiers in 2017 with the closure of its U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH. This year, it removed its police units.

The U.N.’s decision came as the political gridlock between Moïse and his opponents went into a fourth week with businesses and schools still shuttered, and Haitians unable to leave home due to the protests and burning tires and barricades cutting off cities.

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Police fire tear gas as they try to block anti-government protesters from reaching United Nations headquarters, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Rebecca Blackwell AP

While urging all sides to talk, the U.N. has also found itself thrust in a political melee. Thousands of protesters recently marched to the U.N. headquarters in Port-au-Prince to demand that it stop supporting Moïse, who faced a fraud-plagued presidential vote only to be accused of corruption and mismanagement during his 32 months in the presidency.

U.N. History in Haiti

The multinational force arrived in Haiti in 2004 to secure the country, support elections and train the police after a bloody revolt toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Like the 1994 peacekeeping operation and others that followed in the 1990s, the stabilization mission was initially considered a success.

But as controversial elections triggered one political crisis after another, the mission’s popularity waned. The situation worsened when some peacekeepers were accused of sexually abusing Haitian boys and women and Nepalese troops introduced a deadly cholera epidemic after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

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Brazilian members of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) secure a perimeter before arrival of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a shelter in the Lycee Phillipe Guerrier in the city of Les Cayes, in the southwest of Haiti, on Oct. 15, 2016. HECTOR RETAMAL AFP/Getty Images File Photo

In between the controversies, peacekeepers, which numbered up to 13,000 at one point, oversaw the transition to two interim governments, the first transfer of power from a Haitian president to an opposition member, and two other presidential elections.

They also recruited, vetted and trained Haitian police officers and dismantled ruthless gangs. In one memorable event, three years after the peacekeepers’ arrival, soldiers engaged in a five-hour firefight to seize control of four strategic locations in one of the country’s worst gang-controlled slums, returning a sense of normalcy and night life to the capital.

The peacekeepers’ helicopters, vehicles and other logistical support also proved valuable. In 2004, when a deadly Tropical Storm Jeanne left residents in the city of Gonaives land-locked for days, it was U.N. helicopters that provided relief. In 2008, after four back-to-back storms and hurricanes rattled the disaster-prone nation, the country again called on U.N. troops to help with disaster-relief efforts. The same was true after the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti and left more than 300,000 dead.

Despite all of this, some still saw the U.N. as “an occupying force,” while others criticized it as one of the world’s most expensive security outfits.

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Cholera patients admitted to the Doctors Without Borders clinic in November 2012, in Delmas, Haiti. Victims of a Haiti cholera epidemic on Oct. 9, 2013, filed a lawsuit demanding compensation from the United Nations over an outbreak that killed more than 8,300 people. THONY BELIZAIRE AFP/Getty Images

“I think essentially they will be remembered for the cholera epidemic, in terms of Haitians feelings about them,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political science professor at the University of Virginia. “They are perceived as occupiers and in Haiti they are resented. The last big protest was essentially to tell them, ‘Respect our sovereignty.’ “

The price tag for the peacekeepers: $7.5 billion.

The U.N. did not respond immediately to questions from the Miami Herald.

But in a fact sheet, the U.N. points out that it trained 12,286 Haitian police officers, paid for the salaries of thousands of international and Haitian civilian staff and supported a successful Community Violence Reduction program. The program, which the U.N. says benefited more than 1 million Haitians, promoted jobs and dialogue in gang strongholds-

But for all the success the U.N. points to, critics highlight its failures. They look no further than present day Haiti, where after the U.N.’s last foreign police unit, 130 officers from Senegal, left on Sept. 30, local police officers have had their stations and cars set on fire, and guns taken by protesters.

In the city of Les Cayes on the southwest coast, where anarchy reigns, police and local officials have lost control to gangs. Roadblocks are preventing the arrival of food, medicine and other critical supplies, thus fanning a humanitarian crisis.

“To me it’s unacceptable that we have gangs and we have bandits flourishing like I’ve never seen before,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince political analyst. “The police should have been stronger after all of that money that was spent.”

Fatton, the political science professor, said the best the U.N. can say is that it contained an explosion so that Haitian society would not fall apart after Aristide’s 2004 departure. But its presence, he said, “has been an utter failure.”

“When you look at the amount of money that was spent, you have to wonder what the heck happened with the money,” Fatton said. “When you look at the formation of the police, you have to wonder what the heck happened there. There is no record of achievement, except you contained an explosion that you probably will have to contain again.”

But the U.N., which has failed to get to the root of the dysfunction due to sovereignty concerns, isn’t totally to blame. Haiti had five different governments during the U.N.’s 15-year presence, and all failed to transform Haitian society.

“The fault is both the blan and Haitian politicians, Haitian government and Haitian elite,” said Fatton, referring to the Creole term used for the international community. “The problem is you have both international institutions that do not work very well in the context of countries like Haiti and you have Haiti, where you have politicians and elites who are not really transforming their own country. They get into that syndrome whereby they are completely dependent on international organizations, whether it be for your security or whether it be for your financial status.

“There is a kind of opportunistic blaming of the blan on the part of the Haitian politician, Haitian government, Haitian elite but there is also a kind of triumphalism on the part of the foreign community as if they’ve changed everything. And that’s’ nonsense.”

While Haiti was dysfunctional 15 years ago, many problems have worsened. Today, nothing works — not the courts, not schools, not government ministries.

“You have a government that cannot govern; you have institutions that are not institutions. You look at Parliament — it’s a completely dysfunctional institution, the Senate is the same. Look at the police, it doesn’t have the capacity really,” Fatton said.

“So what do you have? You have a president that can’t govern, you supposedly have two prime ministers who are not prime ministers. The judiciary can’t even start its operations because people are in the streets.

“It’s a vacuum,” he added. “I wouldn’t be surprise that the U.N. exits and you have another U.N. contingent coming in or some contingent of Latin America and Caribbean troops.”

“What’s amazing is you don’t have a real major explosion because nothing works.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.
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