Haiti’s Ex-Military Rears its Unrepentant Head

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On July 29, approximately 200 former members of the Haitian armed forces took over several old military buildings in Haiti. The ex-soldiers were protesting the disbandment of the Haitian Army and the fourteen years of back pay they allege the government still owes them. The army was disbanded in 1994 by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was later overthrown in a coup organized in part by former military members. The pay the soldiers demand covers the time after their disbandment until today. The soldiers claim that since the president’s actions were illegal, they still were technically employed by the government.

One of the seized facilities was in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city. The building is now used as the offices for the ministries of foreign affairs and by the government’s national heritage bureau. Another former military building was taken over in Ouanaminthe, a town that borders the Dominican Republic. Officials at the scene of the Cap-Haitien takeover reported no violence. In fact, the uniform-clad men waved a white flag as they approached to signify they were unarmed. However, it was reported that in Ouanaminthe the ex-soldiers had donned pistols and clubs.

U.N. peacekeeping troops (MINUSTAH) stationed in Haiti since Aristide’s overthrow in 2004 did not intervene in the takeover of the military buildings. The Haitian government, however, issued a statement that it would not tolerate the illegal occupation of government offices. Tensions arose the night of the takeover when civilian supporters of the soldiers threw rocks and heckled the peacekeeping and police forces. On July 30, the U.N. peacekeepers and the Haitian police surrounding the occupied buildings began to negotiate the soldiers’ surrender and removal.

Later that night, the ex-soldiers removed the military uniforms they were wearing and surrendered, boarding several school buses that removed them from the scene. The surrender came after nearly an entire day of negotiations with government officials including Interior Minister Paul Antonine Bien-Aime and ex-Army Col. Jen-Claude Jeudi. At this time, it is unclear what concessions, if any, the negotiations entailed.

The events of the July 29 and 30 must remind Haiti and the international community of the continued necessity for the more than 9,000 U.N. forces present in Haiti. Though the seizure by the disgruntled ex-military men lasted only 24 hours, it symbolizes the ongoing violence that has plagued Haiti for decades, namely since the fall of the brutal Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. His administration’s corruption and oppression were replaced by chaos and violence, leaving Haitians wondering which is worse. The Preval government must decide whether to reinstate the military forces as part of a reconstructed armed forces or to continue its reliance upon U.N. supplied troops. It is unlikely, however, that a country with such a historically unstable political system as Haiti’s will be saved simply by reinstating the armed services. Ex-soldiers, after all, executed the 2004 coup that launched the country into one of the most violent periods in modern Haitian history. Few would deny that reactivating the military would likely be one of the worst possible choices for the woebegone Caribbean nation to do, now that it is currently suffering from crushing poverty due to the global food crisis and unremitting violence at the hands of street gangs.