Originally: Restoring Order in Haiti: U.S. Intervenes – Again

March 30, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Ask many Haitians who runs their country and you’ll hear the same thing: God and the United States, not necessarily in that order.

Ask them whom they’d like to run their country, and you’ll also hear similar answers, like the one given by Mirlande Lormil, 35, as she jostled in a line of hundreds to enter a bank that was opening earlier this month for the first time since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s flight into exile Feb. 29.

“I don’t believe in any politicians, because once they get into power they don’t care for nobody – all they think about is their own pockets,” said Lormil as bank officers, fearful of looters, cracked the iron gates open to squeeze in three customers at a time, then slammed them shut again. “If the new president is Haitian, I won’t believe in him.”

Brinot Dreur, 30 and unemployed, agreed. “I don’t believe in politicians. Only Jesus,” he said, peering between the iron bars of the fence around the National Palace, where a couple of dozen U.S. Marines stood guard.

It is into this cauldron of cynicism that Marines began arriving March 1 to head an international peacekeeping force, one that quickly has been forced into a policing role by a country that seems caught in an endless cycle of looking to the United States for answers.


Repeated U.S. help

That shouldn’t be surprising. While Haiti’s colonial ruler was France, it is the United States that has intervened repeatedly to quell turmoil. The first military occupation, from 1915-34, set the stage for Haiti’s look-to-the-north mentality, many historians say.

“Haiti has no viable institutions, and we were the ones who in the 1920s and ’30s occupation helped destroy those institutions,” said Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, a California think- tank. “We dissolved the legislature, we declared martial law, and we created the Haitian army, which over the years became a thug-infested plague. We don’t have a history of bringing democracy to this country, but we can’t be seen to deny Haitians” for both political and moral reasons, Eland said.

Hence, the repeated deployment of U.S. troops, and Haitians’ expectations that the United States will take care of things, Eland says.

While the current peacekeeping force includes French, Canadian and Chilean soldiers, the U.S. troop presence is largest, at about 1,800 members, and they are the ones getting pressure from all sides.

Armed pro-Aristide rebels resent them because the United States pressed Aristide to resign; armed anti-Aristide rebels resent them because the White House demanded they turn in their guns; civilians who expect them to secure the streets, create jobs, and draft a political solution are getting impatient.

After an anti-Aristide rally on March 7 erupted in gunfire that killed seven people, including a gunman shot by Marines, allegations flew that the Marines hadn’t done enough to prevent violence. “People are dying every day in this country! You have to do something!” one man shouted at U.S. troops after the shootings.

A month into their mission, Marines have suffered one injury and killed at least six Haitians in incidents that underscore the hostility toward them from some quarters. In addition to the gunman at the rally, Haitians killed by Marines include a man who drove toward a checkpoint “with hostile intent” and two who fired at Marines guarding the prime minister’s residence.


Facing resistance

If the scenario of an American military presence souring sounds familiar, like those of Somalia and Iraq, Eland and others say it is to be expected. Any peacekeeping mission faces nearly insurmountable odds given Haitians’ high expectations, the few foreign troops, the many guns in Haitian hands and the country’s overwhelming poverty, said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sweig said at least 20,000 foreign soldiers are needed in Haiti to enforce disarmament and create a visible, overwhelming presence on the streets. Failing that, she said the United States should issue arrest warrants for rebel fighters, former Aristide cronies and others accused of human rights atrocities, corruption and drug-trafficking to calm the situation enough to find a political solution.

Either way, Sweig says the United States waited too long to send troops and as a result faces an uphill battle keeping a cork on the chaos. “The administration should have had a few hundred troops on the ground before [rebel leader] Guy Philippe was anywhere near Port-au- Prince,” she said.


Hard lessons

Instead, Aristide fled, the capital erupted in violence and Philippe quickly led his troops into the city. Now, he is loath to relinquish his role as self-proclaimed military chief despite U.S. demands he disarm.

“The opportunity to learn lessons in Iraq – to plan for the day after – has obviously not hit yet,” said Sweig. “We were fixated on seeing Aristide leave with as little blood on our hands as possible. That’s why we waited so long to send in troops.”

Now the question is how long Marines will stay and how expansive their mission will be. Already they have widened it drastically, from protecting only the airport, embassies and key buildings to patrolling streets, enforcing a nighttime curfew and helping Haitian police disarm paramilitary forces.

In the meantime, Haitian political leaders are creating an interim government until elections can be held. That culminated in the swearing-in March 12 of a new prime minister, Gerard Latortue, an economist and Aristide critic who once served briefly as foreign minister. He was chosen by a U.S.-backed council of Haitian officials.

The fact that the choice has not sparked major opposition is promising, said Clotilde Charlot, a co-founder of the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington.

Still, she said peacekeepers should stay several years while the next government earns the trust of people like Lormil, the woman in the bank line.

“They need to help rebuild institutions. They can’t afford to leave while Haitians try to sort out their issues,” she said.

For Lormil, it is already too late. She planned to move to Florida once she got her money from the bank. “This is my country, but I hate it,” she said. “I see us as slaves. No good government, just greedy people who lie. We need foreign nations to teach Haitians how to live.”
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.