Next Step : Humiliating Defeat for Haiti’s Military : President Aristide today officially dismisses the 7,000-member army. The move is viewed as the Caribbean nation’s most revolutionary change in 60 years.
The Haitian military, the most powerful symbol and agent of the brutality and corruption that marked life here for half a century, is no more. The army is an object of public ridicule and the victim of a man it thought it had destroyed.
In what many Haitian political analysts see as the most revolutionary change in Haitian life since the end of a U.S. military occupation more than 60 years ago, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has erased the army as an institution and a factor in Haitian life.
In retrospect, the military really died last Sept. 19 when U.S. troops arrived to restore the democratically elected Aristide, who was overthrown by the Haitian military three years earlier.
After a faltering start marked by a misplaced respect for fellow soldiers, the Americans emasculated the Haitian army, seizing all but pistols and ancient rifles from the troops, taking control of their headquarters and supervising the departure of three leading officers held responsible for the 1991 coup and the murderous brutality that followed, which included the killings of an estimated 3,000 civilians.
The formal death of the 7,000-man army comes today, when Aristide’s government officially dismisses the soldiers. About 1,500 of them, those judged generally the least guilty of corruption and terrorism under the ousted regime, will become members of a lightly armed border patrol.
The process is part of a series of humiliations designed by Aristide. The border patrols will be incorporated into a temporary police force commanded by Maj. Dany Toussaint, who once deserted the army in protest of its practices. They will be permitted to carry pistols, but without ammunition. Toussaint will report to the Justice Ministry rather than the now-functionless Ministry of Defense, and his orders will have to be cleared by Justice officials.
In a shaming act of ridicule, the once-feared high command headquarters building in downtown Port-au-Prince is being turned over to the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
“There is no army today,” said Defense Minister Wilthan Lherisson, a retired general. "(Commander in Chief Gen. Bernardin) Poisson has nothing to command.”
The army’s four generals now wear civilian clothes, work out of a tiny office in the Defense Ministry, if they show up for work at all, and have no troops to do their bidding.
Nevertheless, life holds some pleasures for some departing senior officers. To the disgust of Haitians who wanted them jailed, many are being given privileged and lucrative assignments outside Haiti.
Col. Charles Andres, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and commander of Haiti’s non-functioning navy, has been named military attache to a South American country. Another officer, Gen. Pierre Cherubin, once suspected of drug trafficking, is being sent to Washington as a military attache. “We don’t like it,” one U.S. Embassy official said, “but better he’s in Washington than here.”
Ultimately, there will be only one general and perhaps 70 officers, military sources say, without a headquarters and with the 1,500 troops spread thinly along the border with the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola.
Instead of the barracks now found throughout the country, there will be only one provincial post, at Ouanaminthe, a major frontier crossing point.
The familiar and dreaded tan uniforms of the army are already gone from the streets. Military vehicles loaded with troops no longer roam the slums, firing indiscriminately to terrorize the population. And shopkeepers and bus drivers are not forced to pay soldiers protection money.
Even the ceremonial army guards that stood outside the white Presidential Palace are gone. The protection of the imposing building and Aristide is now in the hands of U.S. troops and a special security force trained to appear accommodating to the people, not threatening.
But erasing the army does not come risk-free, according to Haitian and U.S. officials. When Aristide’s decision became clear the day after Christmas, hundreds of soldiers gathered at downtown military headquarters to protest their impending dismissal and demand back pay.
The demonstration quickly turned violent. U.S. troops had to intervene, opening fire on the protesters. At least four Haitian soldiers died, and dozens were wounded. Some officials fear more violence in the wake of today’s formal disbanding of the army, and U.S. commanders were prepared to put down any new disorder.
Other concerns center on the possibility that the dismissed soldiers, who will be offered job training, will turn to crime instead. Some U.S. military sources also worry that the victims of army brutality will seek revenge on dismissed troops, putting U.S. troops in the dangerous position of protecting them.
Politically, the elimination of the Haitian military is a clear victory for Aristide, who had to overcome U.S. doubts about such a precipitous action. Some U.S. diplomats and military officers had argued that Haiti needed a larger and more traditional military structure. Indicating unspoken worries about the radical populism of Aristide, they argued that Haiti, as an unstable and underdeveloped nation, needed a conservative institution as a balance to possibly erratic, even demagogic, politicians.
The Americans wanted an army of 4,000 soldiers led by some of the outgoing high command. However, Aristide quickly outmaneuvered Washington by simply announcing the elimination of the old force as of today and the appointment of a new command structure.
Privately, U.S. diplomats still express concern, but publicly they have accepted Aristide’s move. “If that’s what Haitians want, we support it,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager said. Diplomats from other nations were more enthusiastic. One Canadian official said: “This is the best and most important act Aristide has taken. It also shows how weak the army really was.”
Some Haitians agree with the Americans’ concerns, including a few who opposed the 1991 coup that drove Aristide into U.S. exile and are critical of the army’s brutality.
“I can’t defend what the army did,” said Georges Sassine, a prominent business leader who worked for Aristide’s return even though he opposes the president’s populist policies.
“But its destruction is a disappointment. It was done out of emotion, not rationality. The army is an institution, perhaps the last institution from Haiti’s past, and I dislike seeing it humiliated and destroyed.”
However, Haitian history shows that institution or not, the army in its modern form has been a consistently coup-minded, anti-democratic force that either ruled the country directly or acted in the interests of such civilian dictators as Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.
The erasure of the Haitian army as a result of the U.S. intervention is ripe with irony.
Originally called the National Guard, it was created and trained by U.S. Marines before they ended their 19-year occupation of Haiti in 1934.