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Haiti debates having a homegrown army

Times Staff Writer

“In this land, we are the only masters,” the Haitian national anthem proudly boasts of this country that in 1804 overthrew slavery and colonization.

But for more than a dozen years, Haiti has been without an army, dependent on a politicized national police force and foreign troops of the United Nations who protect its leaders, respond to natural disasters and quell violence in some of the hemisphere’s most wretched slums.

That galls Joseph Alexandre, a 49-year-old lawyer who saw his military career and family heritage of service abruptly end in 1995 when then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the army that had been complicit in his 1991 ouster.

“We should be doing this for ourselves,” Alexandre, who holds the rank of major, said of patrols here by U.N. military units from Nepal, Croatia, Bolivia and more than a dozen other countries. “Each time I have to pass foreign soldiers in our streets, it’s like a knife stabs me in the heart.”

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With its history of military rule and the involvement of politically corrupted army factions in numerous coups, Haiti has a tainted legacy of leadership in uniform. But as security has improved in recent months and Haitian government institutions recover from three decades of political turmoil, talk has turned to reconstituting the national army born of the slave rebellion.

A citizens commission impaneled two years ago to explore the pros and cons of rebuilding the army concluded in its recent report that this nation of 8 million, with more than 1,100 miles of coastline and a 223-mile border with the Dominican Republic, could and should have its own armed forces. A New York management consultancy, Fordworks Associates, also recommended in a review commissioned by the post-Aristide interim government that Haiti create a limited national armed force to handle border, coastal and international security affairs.

The proposals pleased former soldiers and nationalists but met with little enthusiasm in the fledgling government of President Rene Preval. During last year’s presidential campaign, Preval suggested that the army be permanently abolished.

Aristide’s 1995 action demobilized the 7,500 troops then in service but failed to address the constitutional requirement that Haiti stand up both police and defense forces. Preval’s parliamentary faction has ordered further study of the army issue by a panel of experts yet to be named, putting off any formal decision for months, if not years.

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The recommendations have nonetheless stirred public debate, at least among the country’s economic, social and political leaders increasingly chafing under the ever-expanding foreign military presence.

Georges Michel, a historian and writer who served on the citizens commission, believes Haiti would benefit from a small armed force, commensurate with its resources, to patrol the coastline and Dominican border, through which Colombian cocaine makes its way to Europe and the United States and contraband weapons flow to a worldwide array of hot spots.

A force of about 2,000 would be both affordable and sufficient, Michel said, describing the overstaffed U.N. mission as wasteful and lacking in the motivation that Haitians have to protect their homeland. He said he had been in contact with officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who are prepared to help train a Haitian force once its structure is reformed to make it less susceptible to political manipulation.

“We are actually quite happy that Aristide erased the blackboard so completely so we can start with a blank page,” Michel said.

Still, he expects the preparation of a new force to take at least five years, if an army should ever be approved.

With unemployment afflicting at least 70% of the population, there is broadening sentiment that an army would offer work to young Haitians and restore a professional path proudly trod by generations.

“Military service was always a career option for those who wanted to serve their country and a way to better oneself socially and economically,” said Francois Rodnez, who has worked as a teacher since Aristide’s action ended a 15-year military career.

“We had an army for almost two centuries before one man chose to disband it,” said Maurice Lafortune, a businessman who served on the citizens panel. “It was an institution mistrusted by one man, not by all Haitians.”

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Opponents of restoring the armed forces, including Aristide’s former interior minister, Jocelerme Privert, argue that Haiti can ill afford to bankroll its own defense.

The U.N. mission’s annual price tag now tops $500 million -- the equivalent of Haiti’s entire budget.

“We have to choose between buying tanks and helicopters or building schools and hospitals,” said Privert, one of the few Aristide lieutenants still in Haiti trying to navigate the new political waters.

Preval has said he expects U.N. forces to remain in Haiti throughout his presidency, which runs to February 2011, to maintain peace and security while his government struggles to resuscitate an economy that is the poorest in the Americas.

A major component of the U.N. mission is the training and equipping of the Haitian National Police, which will need another six or seven years to reach its goal of 14,000 officers, said Fred Blaise, spokesman for the U.N. police, which make up about one-fifth of the foreign forces.

Blaise, a Boca Raton, Fla., police officer on leave to help the U.N. mission in his native Haiti, argues that putting together an army at this point would be a distraction and a drain on resources.

“I can envision, after the Haitian National Police reach their numbers, that the country could use some kind of national guard to respond to disasters,” he said. “But it’s premature to talk about an army.”

Former soldiers such as Alexandre disagree.

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“We are ready to put on our uniforms tomorrow,” the lawyer said of a 2,500-strong former soldiers association. “Our only reservation is that after so many years, some of them may be too tight.”

carol.williams@latimes.com


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