For Haitians, Anarchy Is the Law of the Land
Last Sunday, a driver of one of the ramshackle minibuses called tap-taps sped past a police car in the capital’s Tabarre district. So the cops chased him and shot him. Driver Ronald Alvard died at the wheel, injuring three bystanders as he crashed.
Two weeks before, in the suburb of Carrefour, neighbors heard Michel Coutar screaming for help, then gunshots. Too frightened to venture out in the dark, they found what was left of Coutar on the roadside at sunrise--after he had been run over repeatedly all night. The police never investigated.
And two months before, in the rural town of Mirebalais, local political thugs surrounded the police station to protest the arrest of two colleagues. Police say they fired their guns in the air, but a protester was shot. Then, as the police officers disappeared one by one, the mob captured the police chief and chopped him to death.
This is life in Haiti, an anarchic land where chaos, poverty and danger still reign more than three years after the United States and the United Nations intervened to restore democracy--spending more than $2 billion in the process.
This Caribbean nation of 7 million people is mired in a dizzying array of political, economic and social crises that are undermining U.S. and U.N. efforts to help restore even the most basic institutions and human rights: justice and the rule of law.
As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives here today for a one-day visit, Haiti doesn’t even have a government; the last one fell 10 months ago when the prime minister resigned.
The political infighting that continues to block efforts by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s handpicked successor, Rene Preval, to appoint a new government has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid earmarked for a country that remains the poorest and least developed in the Americas.
Inflation is soaring, while per-capita income remains frozen at 1994 levels of about $300 a year. Tens of millions of dollars are flowing through the Haitian economy, but economists say much of it is the proceeds of drug traffickers, currency speculators and corrupt politicians, netting few jobs and little development. The fastest-growing industries now are private security firms and the daily lottery.
Corruption rules here, according to diplomats, politicians, economists and average Haitians. So does crime--by the cops and the criminals--despite an ambitious U.S.- and U.N.-led effort to build the professional Haitian National Police to replace its brutal, disbanded army.
The new 5,300-member force has scored many successes and won some high praise, but its reputation has been marred by isolated incidents of continuing abuse and undermined by a judiciary that is utterly dysfunctional. And the United Nations is struggling to complete its three-year police and judicial reconstruction project before its mandate here expires this fall.
Albright Visits at Critical Time
Albright’s agenda, reflecting the functional anarchy that is Haiti today, includes urging political reconciliation to create a government, advocating respect for human rights and pushing for tougher action against the booming drug trade, while reiterating U.S. support for Haiti’s struggling young democracy.
Her brief visit comes at a critical moment for this nation.
“This is going to be a watershed year for Haiti,” said Colin Granderson, a Trinidadian diplomat who heads a joint U.N.-Organization of American States mission that monitors the police, justice and human rights in Haiti.
Granderson described the situation here as a race between efforts to build “a new social ethos” of professionalism and accountability and the dark forces of traditional brutality and dictatorship that left thousands dead before 20,000 U.S. troops intervened in September 1994.
Granderson and other diplomats cited many encouraging signs: a tough new police inspector general who has dismissed 230 officers for offenses ranging from theft to summary killings; recent police crackdowns on drug traffickers and gang leaders; and even the immediate detention of the five officers who allegedly shot and killed the Tabarre tap-tap driver.
But most independent observers here agree that the status quo is fragile, at best, in a nation where few have money and many have guns.
“There’s no government, no budget, no development, and the economy is getting worse,” Granderson said. “The longer the crisis continues, the greater the possibility of things deteriorating into what happened in Mirebalais.”
The killing of the police chief in that town, combined with the recent assassination of one of Aristide’s bodyguards here in the capital, “have raised fears of a possible return of politically motivated killings,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned in a recent report to the Security Council.
An independent U.N. investigation of the incident found that Mirebalais Police Chief Ricelin Dormeus was slain by members of a group called Put Order Into Disorder, which is allied with the Lavalas Family party formed by Aristide after he left office in 1996.
In the weeks since the killing, several members of the group have been arrested, but most independent observers say they doubt that those cases--like most here--will ever come to trial.
“It’s a dysfunctional judiciary. There’s no other word for it,” Granderson concluded.
Its Own Brand of Justice
The scene one recent morning at Port-au-Prince’s Parquet--the Haitian equivalent of a state prosecutor’s office--illustrated the phenomenon.
There was no electricity. The phones were out. And dozens of suspects, complainants, lawyers and bodyguards were crammed into a sweltering waiting room, where a small sign depicting a dollar bill and a bag of money read, “You don’t pay for justice.”
Graying men in suits with briefcases mixed with young men in T-shirts toting Uzi submachine guns as all waited for a precious few moments with the man in the second-floor office: Joseph Brutus--the capital’s all-powerful chief prosecutor.
It is here, lawyers, clients and diplomats say, that justice begins and ends.
“It’s like a supermarket,” said one middle-aged Haitian with a pending case who asked not to be named. “You pay your money, and you get what you need.”
Gerald Dalvius, a criminal lawyer and opposition politician, said, “The situation is disgusting.” Dalvius is a leading contender for justice minister--if Preval can overcome parliamentary opposition and form a new government.
“Nearly 50% of the judges, magistrates and prosecutors are delinquents,” Dalvius said, “but the 50% who are not selling justice aren’t doing it simply because they don’t know how.”
Brutus bristled at the accusation. During a brief interview in his mobbed and darkened doorway, the chief prosecutor insisted that justice is not for sale.
“I don’t want anyone to say the justice system isn’t working,” the burly Brutus asserted. “It’s not true. Look--you see everyone coming up and talking to me. If we had no justice, it would be a jungle.”
A prosecutor one floor above acknowledged the system’s flaws. Etzer Aristide, who is no relation to the former president, pointed to Haiti’s criminal laws, which date to 1835, and to a lack of judicial resources.
“The police have telephones. They have electricity, guns, vehicles and equipment,” Aristide said. “We have nothing.”
But the new police force is grossly understaffed. On Friday, officials were negotiating feverishly to avert a threatened police strike and demonstrations timed to Albright’s visit today to protest orders that they begin working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, without overtime pay. An additional 530 officers have just begun basic training in a U.S.-financed academy here, but law enforcement analysts say the force still is insufficient to police the nation.
What is more, the combination of under-policing, judicial corruption and political paralysis has made Haiti a drug trafficker’s paradise.
In recent U.S. congressional testimony, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s deputy director, Donnie Marshall, called Haiti the “drug trafficking crossroads of the Caribbean.” And recent seizures by the DEA and the U.S. Coast Guard, which is policing Haitian waters while it trains a new Haitian coast guard, indicate that tons of Colombian cocaine are going through Haiti en route to U.S. shores.
As the drug money washes through half a dozen new banks that have opened here--and through a construction boom that includes more than a dozen new gas stations and palatial villas on hilltops overlooking the capital--it has sent inflation soaring toward 20% at a time when real wages are sagging and unemployment nears 70%.
In the capital’s fast-growing Delmas district, there are multistory bank buildings, a modern supermarket, a glass-and-steel mini-mall and even a new BMW dealership--all built within the past year--while an army of street vendors hawks used shoes and clothes outside.
“This needs to be analyzed more because supposedly there’s no money in the country. I just don’t know why,” said Adrien Westerbrand Jr., BMW’s Haitian sales and marketing manager, who says he’s selling more than a dozen luxury cars a year compared with half that before democracy was restored in 1994.
Added Nicholson Saint-Hubert, 28, whose newly opened CompHaiti store sells more than a dozen new computers a month: “I ask that question too. A lot of our clients are these new banks, but there are also people with a lot of money.
“What I know is that life is hard in Haiti for everyone else. For me, every year that passes, life is getting harder. The electricity supply is decreasing. Every day, the cost of living goes up. You pay more for utilities and you don’t get them. For me, this country is just dying slowly.”
But as the gap between rich and poor grows, most analysts said they are surprised that Haiti is not more violent, more desperate and more out of control.
A hand-painted slogan on one of the battered tap-taps that battle the capital’s cavernous potholes and hours-long traffic jams seemed to capture Haiti’s essence: “I just stumble, but I don’t fall down.”