PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - For two weeks, an armed band of former Haitian soldiers has occupied an old military camp in the capital where they carry out military training in defiance of the government.
“We took control of something that is ours. No one can force us to leave this place,” said David Dorme, the leader of the group and a former army sergeant, even though Haiti’s army was disbanded in disgrace almost two decades ago.
The irregular camp and others that have sprung up in different parts of the country are the latest manifestations of a push to revive Haiti’s army, which was long considered one of the most reprehensible in the Western hemisphere, responsible for decades of human rights abuses and corruption, as well as a bloody military coup in 1991.
The former soldiers have ignored appeals by President Michel Martelly to put down their weapons and leave the Lamentin camp, where men brandishing assault rifles and handguns proudly proclaim they are defending the nation’s constitutional right.
That may be in large part because Martelly has himself declared the reconstitution of the army a central goal of his government, much to the chagrin of Western governments who believe Haiti has far greater priorities in the wake of a devastating earthquake two years ago.
Martelly is under mounting international pressure to take tougher action to evict and disarm the would-be soldiers before they grow any bolder and pose a threat to political stability.
“We expect ... concrete actions to put an end to this ad hoc process of regrouping, which is an unnecessary provocation,” the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti, Mariano Fernandez, declared in an official statement last week.
The United Nations and major financial donors to Haiti’s earthquake recovery question the country’s need for an army, arguing that Haiti faces no external threats. Then there’s the question of money, and how Haiti could possibly afford to assume the cost of arming and training even a small army.
“Haiti doesn’t have the money, and the international community has no appetite for funding something like this,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group think-tank, which monitors Haiti closely.
The emergence of the irregular military training camps comes in the midst of a new political crisis. Prime Minister Garry Conille resigned last week after falling out with Martelly, plunging Haiti back into political paralysis and uncertainty.
U.N. officials also worry that talk of reviving the army could undermine international efforts to train and equip a new civilian police force, a key goal of the U.N. mission in Haiti.
“The choice to recreate or not a force is a legitimate question and a sovereign decision,” Fernandez conceded in his statement. “However, this initiative must not come at the expense of the capacity building and staffing of the National Police of Haiti.”
Haiti currently has a U.N.-trained police force of about 10,000, with plans to train another 5,000-6,000 over the next three years.
But Martelly, a popular former folk singer known as ‘Sweet Mickey’ who took office last May, argues that the army was never constitutionally dissolved and can be restored by presidential decree. He says it would be an important step to recover sovereignty to a country which for much of the last two decades has been overseen by U.N. forces and foreign aid agencies.
Martelly announced his plan last November on the anniversary of a major battle two centuries ago during Haiti’s struggle for independence from France. “The dignity of the Haitian people is coming with the creation of the armed forces,” he said.
A commission was set up to study the issue. Following consultations with other governments in the region, including oil-rich Venezuela, it is due to issue a report any day.
In a meeting with a delegation of members from the U.N. Security Council last month, Martelly said the creation of an army was necessary to “fill the security vacuum” when the 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force eventually leaves Haiti.
No one knows when that will be. The force, which is a mixture of troops and police, has been in Haiti for eight years under a mandate extended every October by the Security Council. Current plans are to maintain its presence for the foreseeable future, while gradually reducing its military component.
In a speech last week in Miami, Haitian Defense Minister Thierry Mayard-Paul recognized the need to reinforce the police, but argued that the new army can be set up “in parallel”.
“It will not be an army that goes and fights. The goal is to have a force that can replace the U.N. and be prepared to handle natural disasters and other emergencies,” he said, highlighting the need for specialized border and maritime units, an elite rapid reaction team, and an engineering corps. “We have to take our own destiny in our hands. We can’t always be holding hands and asking for help from others.”
“The whole thing smells bad,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian-American political strategist in New York, recalling Haiti’s past experience with a home-grown military, as well as militia offshoots such as the notorious National Security Volunteers, better known as Tonton Macoutes, during the father-and-son dictatorship of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.
In 2004, a ragtag rebel army, made up partially of former soldiers, toppled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and attempted to take power, until U.S. troops intervened to restore democracy.
McCalla and others worry any new military apparatus, together with a proposed intelligence service, could once again be used as a repressive force.
“Some of the members of the Martelly government hail from that old guard of Duvalierists and most of them share the view that Haiti was better off with a strong executive who did not have to bother much with an opposition,” said McCalla.
The Martelly proposal appears to have some popular support. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has an image problem with some of its members accused of being responsible for introducing a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010.
Several peacekeepers have been accused of rape, and a recent survey of more than 800 households in Port-au-Prince found that a majority of respondents wanted the U.N. troops to leave.
Former soldiers and many jobless youngsters are mobilizing apparently in the belief that the new force’s creation is imminent.
Dorme, the former sergeant, said some 6,000 ex-soldiers and jobless young men have contacted the Lamentin camp seeking to join the new army. He said many of them returned to their provincial regions, but they stand ready to join.
He also said the constitution does not allow heavily-armed foreign soldiers to occupy Haitian territory. “We will stay here until U.N. soldiers leave the country.”
Dorme’s group painted the gate of Lamentin camp with the French acronym of the Haitian Armed Forces, FAD’H. Some also wear brand new green and khaki uniforms.
Although they refuse to provide details about their source of financial support, they appear to have enough funding in order to dress and feed the men attending training.
“We do not have any problem with the authorities and the police. We do not intend to attack anybody. But if the police decide to attack us, we will provide a response and they will be responsible for any damage that would follow,” Dorme said. “I hope they remember what happened in 2004. I hope they will think twice before doing anything like that.”
Writing and additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Kieran Murray