Posted on Mon, Mar. 22, 2004  
I recently asked someone in Port-au-Prince to send me by overnight courier a document. The process was delayed be- cause my friend was forced back by random gunfire and outbreaks from armed demonstrators. ”Yikes,” said a local friend. “To think I complain about Miami traffic.”

Bullets in Haiti are as plentiful as vehicles on I-95, and bullets have been flying with the same reckless abandon. There have been more than 200 people killed in the violence leading up to and following the Feb. 29 departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and armed thugs still patrol the inner alleys and outer towns, despite the presence of more than 2,700 international troops. There’s little chance of stability unless and until there’s a real, honest, competent and well-trained security force.

Haiti’s problem is not the lack of a security force but rather the presence of a parallel one that has neutralized, undermined, corrupted or usurped the official institution. For a brief period, following the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation during which the Americans created the Haitian military, there was relative stability. Shortly after Francois Duvalier was elected president in 1957, he created the nefarious Tonton Macoute, a private militia that terrorized the population and killed tens of thousands. The system of personal henchmen whose sole loyalty was to a paycheck coming from an individual, not a state institution, became so ingrained that it is today as much a part of the culture as the noonday meal of rice and beans.

When Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994 after a 1991 military coup, he immediately disbanded the Haitian army, exiling generals to overseas posts and cooperating with the 20,000 U.S. troops in an attempt to disarm the population with a weapons buy-back program.

Some men turned in old, rusty World War II weapons, but many more soldiers hid their caches, hoping that someday they again could swagger under the weight of their M16s. With their former general, Herard Abraham, newly appointed as minister of defense, their day could soon come. Said one gold-capped rebel who goes by the name Faustin: “The Army is a solution to the crisis. We haven’t been divided; it was the president who divided us. Without an army, we’ll have another 20 years of hell.”

The only official security force is the 3,500-member remnant of the police force that Aristide created in 1995 — weak, ineffective and mainly corrupt. The United States poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into preparations for this first-time body but neglected to take into account the extreme differences between U.S. and Haitian reality.

It supplied dozens of new cars for officers who didn’t know how to drive. It trained men in Guantánamo, Cuba, rather than in the remote, primitive neighborhoods that the men would patrol. It neglected to include an officer’s training component; consequently, that when Aristide began plucking people from the general pool to become supervisors, their moral authority was only to him, not the institution.

Ever mindful of lurking enemies, Aristide also armed loyalists. Some turned against him and aligned themselves with the former military, increasing their weapons stock from the Dominican Republic and South Florida. Others remain devoted and hopeful that Aristide will eventually return. Both sides are prepared to wage a civil war if the international community doesn’t take its promise to help seriously.

There’s no excuse for the United States, France, Canada and the United Nations not to get it right this time, though their job is going to be tougher because of greater division, increased corruption, drug money and more guns.

Kathie Klarreich, a freelance writer, reports on Haitian issues.