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Haiti’s Cautious Improvement, But the Aristide Question Remains Unanswered

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illustration by Margaret Scott

Continued Funding and the Creation of a Reliable Force not a Slam Dunk
In recent months, the Haitian government has announced plans to explore the potential creation of a national security force intended to eventually replace U.N. peacekeeping units now stationed mainly in the urban areas of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation. The decision comes at what could turn out to be a pivotal moment for Haiti, which could ultimately either enshrine or destroy the democratic potential of the current administration. President René Préval appointed a commission to evaluate the prospects, element and design of a professional national security force, which Haiti has sorely lacked for a decade or more. The commission, headed by Sen. Yuri Latortue, is mandated to report its findings in eight months. Latortue is the nephew of Haiti’s infamous former interim prime minister, Gérard Latortue. The upgraded security forces would be designed to supplant the upwards of 9,000 U.N. troops that have been in Haiti, in one form or another, since 2004. If this can be accomplished within its time frame—which is by no means a given—Haitians could reasonably hope for at least the beginning of sustainable economic development and democratic stability on the island by the medium-term future.

MINUSTAH’s Spotty Record
Although a state of profound institutional disarray persists in Haiti, conditions in the cash-strapped nation already have shown signs of modest improvement. In February 2007, the United Nations Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of its current stabilization mission (known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH) to remain in Haiti through October of this year. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, has lauded the mission as essential for maintaining the island’s public security and consolidating its standard record of democratic governance, thereby expressing confidence in the nascent administration of President Préval’s Fwon Lespwa (Front of Hope) movement. The aforementioned entity is President Préval’s left-of-center political coalition, and has earned considerable backing among many of Haiti’s most impoverished citizens.

The coalition also includes many prominent legislators and former members of Fanmi Lavalas (Waterfall Family), the party of President Préval’s predecessor, Jean Bertrand Aristide. Following his run-off victory in the 2006 presidential elections, Préval promised the nation a relatively smooth staging of Haiti’s regional and parliamentary elections. With these efforts and others, he began to establish a government in Port-au-Prince which at least resembled a democracy. This development may be partly attributed to the efforts of the otherwise chronically afflicted and oft-criticized MINUSTAH. Another immediate and gnawing problem that could bedevil Préval’s standing in the nation is the unacknowledged but nevertheless cool relationship that now exists between Préval and his former mentor and political partner, ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was induced to go into exile as the result of a Washington drafted ruse. The rift between Préval and Aristide was just recently underscored by an anti-Préval parade, in which activists marching in the streets of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, called for Aristide’s rapid return home and to power. As for Aristide, he has said that he wants just that, but that such a move would only occur at Préval’s invitation.

Since being launched in June 2004, the MINUSTAH mission has been under tremendous pressure to fix (or wholly replace) a national security operation that many consider to be in a condition of irrecoverable disrepair. The UN security mission has an annual budget that approaches nearly $500 million and involves over 9,000 uniformed personnel, the majority of which come from other Latin American nations such as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and most notably Brazil. MINUSTAH has suffered from major logistical setbacks and has been the target of vociferous criticism of its inept strategy and scrambled administrative management, both domestically and internationally. This includes accusations that the mission essentially failed to prevent the Haitian National Police (HNP) forces from perpetrating atrocities against unarmed civilians in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country. A variety of non-governmental organizations and human rights advocacy groups (including Amnesty International) allege that the UN has neglected crucial humanitarian work in Haiti and has instead chosen to allocate its relatively scant resources towards policing unstable urban areas and curbing the violence authored by exceedingly well-armed shantytown gangs. This allocation was originally at the behest of the U.S.-installed and universally discredited Latortue government, under a de facto and biased anti-Aristide directorate composed of the U.S., France, Canada, the OAS and the UN.

Its critics also contend that the UN forces’ operative style was to focus on controlling rival gangs, including a botched MINUSTAH operation that occurred in Cité Soleil in December 2006 and left up to 20 civilians dead. This has considerably weakened public confidence in the UN efforts within Haiti. Attempts to pacify rival gangs in Port-au-Prince by implementing Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs have also proven largely ineffective. Perhaps more than any other nation, Brazil has suffered a major loss of prestige in its effort to stabilize Haiti. Nevertheless, the Brazil-commanded MINUSTAH forces and President Préval can claim far more success than the mooncalf pacification efforts undertaken by the U.S.-UN supported interim regime of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, whose disgraceful lassitude and policy of mean-spirited vengeance have rung up a very negative balance of corruption and wasted opportunities.

In recent months, however, the Préval administration and leaders of MINUSTAH’s mission have begun to highlight the pressing need to establish viable public institutions, the vast majority of which up to now either have been engulfed in venality or malfeasance in office. It is widely understood that the establishment of a functional security apparatus will be a sine qua non for broader efforts to alleviate poverty and engender political stability in the bedraggled nation. The establishment of a commission to explore this possibility confirms that the current administration is taking the issue to heart. President Préval and some of his colleagues have acknowledged the need for a comprehensive program to eliminate impunity for armed gangs, overhaul the security sector, and to improve the country’s dilapidated and egregiously overcrowded criminal detention facilities. Furthermore, President Préval recently has called for the U.S. to augment the funding available for efforts to facilitate the construction of a stronger Haitian state and a more effective national security apparatus.

International Naiveté or Neglect?
Initial international efforts to upgrade and refurbish the Haitian National Police (HNP) in the mid-1990s were quickly negated by a failure to make any inroads into reforming the country’s judiciary and correctional systems, let alone its local police forces. A host of international actors failed to recognize that an integrated reform process would represent the only viable means of achieving sustainable improvements in a country that was only recently on the brink of collapsing into the hands of entrenched vigilante gangs and their congenital violence. Instead, several UN mandates issued during the 1990s sought an immediate, if illusionary, remedy to the problem, which only exemplified the neglect and myopia that so frequently characterized failed efforts at international intervention in Haitian affairs. Needless to say, the short-lived efforts at professionalization of the HNP were rapidly stripped of life by an inept judiciary and a venal officer corps. This situation was exacerbated by correctional facilities that were bulging both with too many criminals and too little housing for numerous victims who were being detained for no particular reason except that they were foes of Bernard Gousse, Haiti’s former Minister of Justice and one of the most execrable members of the Latortue regime. The mechanisms established to discipline human rights violators within the HNP failed miserably, to no one’s great surprise, due to corruption and an ill-equipped judiciary that was incapable of handling the massive burden placed upon it. By this point, the HNP had disintegrated into a violent and corrupted band of cutpurses thoroughly incapable of pursuing anything approximating blind justice in the perilous streets of Haiti.

As the international community lost interest in the country, circumstances worsened and Aristide’s controversial electoral victory in 2000 caused the security sector to deteriorate even further. Throughout 2004, recurrent rioting and public violence led to the deteriorating or outright destruction of many of the interim regime’s courthouses, police stations, and jailhouses, which only further hardened the obstacles to the construction of anything approaching an effective Haitian national security apparatus. The controversial final removal of Aristide in 2004 has been criticized by many as an illegitimate act of U.S. intervention and an unwarranted “removal” of a democratically elected leader—nevertheless, the change marked a tentative turning point in the stabilization and democratization of the Haitian state.

Political Reconciliation as a Novelty
The Préval government has largely managed to steer clear of the customary acts of revenge and violence following the transfer of power and, instead, has introduced a more inclusive and conciliatory tone to Haitian politics. The administration includes ministers drawn from six different political parties, and President Préval recently has been able to secure an extension of the MINUSTAH mandate, thus validating his earlier pledge to collaborate with the UN and other international assistance programs in order to improve democratic governance. President Préval’s apparent eagerness to forge a working relationship with the UN mission marks a prudent change from the often deserved hostility towards international actors that Haitian authorities felt forced to episodically express throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. The ostensible departure from the inherent winner-takes-all dialectics in Haitian politics will—if it can prove sustainable—constitute something of a revolution. However, the task of generating lasting public trust in the state and reversing nearly two centuries of impunity for the ruling class, often composed of recruits and felonious officials, will likely prove to be a lengthy and arduous chore.

An important lesson borne out of Haiti’s tragic history is that democratic elections may not necessarily bring about a viable democracy. It is imperative that the current window of opportunity created by the relative normalcy of the Préval presidency be seized upon to initiate and follow through on a complete overhaul of the vermiculated security sector. It seems that both the Préval government as well as the now more engaged international actors recognize that a bona fide reform of the security sector is necessary. This recently has resulted in ambitious plans to restructure the police, the judiciary and correctional systems. This police reform strategy has been commenced with assistance from a MINUSTAH that has learned from experience, at a time when the entire UN operation in Haiti was seen as a being second rate. MINUSTAH had been deeply strained by its often star-crossed behavior in the early months of its Haiti role. Meanwhile, the much-needed modernization of the criminal justice sector has yet to be implemented, nor have the police been professionalized.

Efforts to fill Haiti’s current institutional void with good governance will undoubtedly require a long-term commitment by the international community. Moreover, this momentum must be predicated on the political goodwill of Haitian leaders, who must embrace the give-and-take mentality that characterize genuine democracies, but up to now has remained alien to Port-au-Prince. Accordingly, a pledge of $750 million put forward by participants at the International Conference for Haiti’s Economic and Social Development held in Port-au-Prince in July 2006 was very promising indeed. The funds being targeted are meant to finance the country’s budget deficit and its need for new public investment. It is essential that this auspicious development scheme represent something more than the usual practice of announcing a massive investment involving big figures to be followed by a sudden de facto withdrawal (so historically ubiquitous in Haiti). Instead, any plan should embody a willingness on the part of donors to invest in the long term, with some prospects for good results, and keep to their word. If done competently—perhaps for the first time—such a program could set a precedent for effective administration of aid programs in Haiti, and act as a lure for more aid as well as further productive investments in the country’s future.

Although Préval’s ascent to the presidency gives cause for cautious optimism about Haiti’s future, the calamitous condition of the state’s existing apparatus could be a potential mine field blocking progress and meaningful economic development for years to come. It should come as no surprise that Transparency International named Haiti the world’s most corrupt nation in 2006—in part, a residual consequence of the Latortue regime—and persistent impunity has rendered the country a haven for organized crime. In the past, the deteriorating economic situation meant that crime and gang activity was the only means to attaining a better lifestyle for many Haitians. Furthermore, the absence of a genuine homegrown police presence has facilitated the emergence of a flourishing drug trafficking industry that today is far too powerful to be addressed solely by Haitian officials, nor its police.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) paints a disturbing picture of the Haitian justice system and describes the legal code as antiquated, with its practices often approaching the absurd. The Haitian judiciary has never successfully created a criminal record system, many judges lack secondary education, measly salaries promote corruption, courthouses have been reduced to rubble, and roughly 96 percent of current inmates are in pre-trial detention—some indefinitely. The ICG also reports that the National Prison in Port-au-Prince is currently filled with 2,500 prisoners (yet staffed by only 25 guards), which amounts to nearly eight times its rated capacity. As a result of the overcrowding, disease among inmates has become a rampant problem. In general, Haitian detention facilities and its correctional system are scarcely better than primitive, and in urgent need of funding in order to be afforded even minimal modernization and to provide adequate capacity for housing Haiti’s large prison population.

The poor record in disarming Haiti’s criminals has placed a substantial obstacle to ensuring the country’s security, particularly in crime-plagued urban areas. After President Jean Bertrand Aristide was reinstated by U.S. troops in 1994, he, but mainly the U.S. military personnel, listlessly disbanded the Haitian army without adequately collecting the weaponry possessed by the officers of the military regime. Haiti has had no organized armed forces of any discernible quality since the early 1990s and these groups (which frequently included former army members) often outmatch the police in numbers and training. The customary state monopoly on the use of force is thus absent from Haitian society, which has bred a de facto form of anarchy. The relative free reign enjoyed by Haitian criminals had rendered the state without possession of a genuine authority in many urban areas. Port-au-Prince itself, along with communities such as Cité Soleil and Gonäives, were effectively outside of governmental jurisdiction until just recently. MINUSTAH and the local police forces under its coordination, frequently sided with anti-Aristide forces. These continually engaged in direct and bloody urban combat with armed gangs that at different times were often on opposing sides.

Will Haitian History Repeat Itself?
The situation in Haiti remains extremely complex and the cautious optimism currently emerging will hopefully not be replaced by imprudence. Moreover, the Préval administration currently appears willing to place substantial manpower and resources behind the effort to establish a national security force. The exploratory commission is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and could ultimately fortify public security in some of Haiti’s most notoriously violent urban areas. The U.N. Security Council’s recent decision to extend the MINUSTAH mandate and the pledge of substantial additional international resources are certainly sanguine points of departure, but the severity and depth of Haiti’s security crisis leaves no room for ambiguity. In May 2007, two popular Haitian talk show hosts, François Latour and Alix Joseph were murdered; this betrays the domestic social and political problems surrounding the freedom of media expression, as well as uncontrolled gang violence that persists in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere on the island. No fewer than nine Haitian journalists have been murdered since 2000.

The international community and Haiti’s elected leaders must strive to provide both short-term stability and long-term reform of Haiti’s security apparatus. Without the installation of this prerequisite, Haiti will likely retain its lamentable position as the most unstable, impoverished, and corrupt nation in the Western Hemisphere. On the ground, this means that its skyrocketing child mortality rate (123 out of 1,000 live births) and the almost incomprehensible high illiteracy rate (44 percent of citizens have no more than a primary education) will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Recent events in the capital quite clearly demonstrate the existing deleterious impact of Haiti’s institutional malaise upon the day-to-day living conditions for many of its citizens. Port-au-Prince’s General Hospital—the nation’s largest health care facility—effectively shut down when janitors and other staff went on strike in an effort to recover more than four weeks of back wages. Doctors were unable to utilize the operating rooms because they were overflowing with hazardous refuse and medical waste. Given this grim scenario and Haiti’s ostensible incapacity to carry out public projects effectively, one cannot help but question the prospects for creating a reliable national security force.

Because a military force cannot be trusted in the absence of a transparent and predictable state, the inevitable calls to restore the Haitian army deserve to be disregarded. On July 27, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited with Préval to discuss the role of MINUSTAH, highlighting the ongoing debate surrounding the UN’s role in Haiti. While there, the Secretary General also met with civil society activists, private entrepreneurs, and members on the nation’s Commission for Justice Reform. If the Préval administration can utilize such opportunities and mobilize an international community that will be committed to Haiti’s crafting a functional and modern democracy in the coming years, its citizens (if they are lucky) may one day be able to look back on this era of bitter violence and suffering as a footnote in Haiti’s long, painful history.