Friday, March 12, 2004; Page A23

“I am the chief, the military chief. The country is in my hands.”

Nothing could more clearly prove why Haiti does not need an army than the boasting of rebel leader Guy Philippe last week in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian army was abolished nine years ago during a period of democratic transition, precisely to prevent the country from falling back into the hands of military men. Now that the U.S. Marines have made the commendable decision to disarm rebel and pro-Aristide militants alike, the Haitian people desperately need the international community to ensure that they finish the job.

Like so many countries in the Third World, Haiti has suffered not only from a lack of national security in the sense of borders and territorial integrity but also from an ongoing crisis of human security, the right of each person to live in peace and with the guarantee of basic rights such as food, health care, education and citizenship. The army, long an instrument of suppressive authoritarian regimes, has historically deprived Haitians of these fundamental rights.

Isolated and destitute, Haitians have been terrorized by military violence and its accompanying legacy of poverty. In the late 1980s, the army consumed about 40 percent of the national budget, even as hunger and AIDS wracked the population. Haiti had one soldier for every 1,000 citizens, and 1.5 doctors for every 10,000.

The 1991 coup against Haiti’s first democratically elected president was definitive proof of the army’s predatory role. Even though the 1994 agreement returning Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office called for a reduction of the army from 7,500 to 1,500 troops, a force that size was still a clear threat to democratic governance. In 1995 I visited Haiti to discuss with President Aristide the benefits of doing away with the army entirely. He readily agreed that the army was a problem, but he doubted he would have the political mandate to tackle it.

Since Aristide said that he could not abolish the army without the support of the Haitian people, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress commissioned an independent polling firm to gauge popular support for the idea. The results were stunning: 62 percent of Haitians were strongly in favor of abolition and only 12 percent were against.

These figures were key in convincing Aristide that demilitarization was an idea whose time had come. He cut the army’s funding and set in motion a legislative process to have the abolition of the army enshrined in Haiti’s constitution. In 1996, when I visited Haiti for the inauguration of presidential successor Rene Preval, Aristide happily noted that the only members of the army still on the government payroll were 20 marching band musicians.

After the troops were disbanded, the next steps to consolidate the rule of law were clear: The population needed to be disarmed. Death-squad leaders and army generals had to be brought to justice, and the police force required restructuring and professional training to take on the duties of civil defense. The abolition of the army was thus designed to complement larger nation-building initiatives developed in conjunction with the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. government.

But after a brief period of support following the American occupation in 1994, the international community essentially left Haiti to work out its problems alone. It is no secret that conservative Republicans were more concerned with facilitating Aristide’s exit from power than with reinforcing the fragile institutions of Haitian democracy. As a result, funding was revoked just as Haiti was making the pivotal transition to self-rule. The aid squeeze following the contested 2000 elections caused an implosion of the Haitian economy and a consequent crisis of governance.

Armed opposition groups of former soldiers reconstituted themselves both in Haiti and in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Aristide’s response to his predicament was disappointing, if not predictable. With his power threatened, he encouraged the formation of pro-government gangs, or chiméres. The chiméres also attacked students and peaceful demonstrators, a chilling echo of the army’s former role.

But it would be wrong to interpret Haiti’s current crisis as proof that the original decision to demilitarize was a mistake. The abolition of the army makes as much sense today as it did in 1995. The Haitian people still need their government to spend its precious few resources on fighting poverty, not buying arms. They need a professional, depoliticized police force to maintain order, not an army that attacks its own people with impunity. They need a say in their country’s destiny, not subjugation to the rule of men with guns.

Haiti still has the potential to overcome the tragic legacy of militarism, as has been proven in many cases elsewhere in the Americas. In most of the region, the past 20 years have brought increased civilian control over what were once autonomous militaries. The entire trade area of Mercosur is comprised of former dictatorships — Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay — that today share a common agenda of development and democratization. And for those who would argue that total demilitarization is unrealistic, for the past 56 years, Costa Rica has proven that a country without an army is eminently possible in the modern world.

What all these relatively peaceful and politically stable countries share are open relationships of trade and communication with their neighbors, which reinforce democratic governance and discourage military meddling. No one president can reduce military autonomy and disarm warring factions on his own. In the case of Haiti, not only was the struggling democracy cut off from outside aid but an armed insurrection of former military and death-squad leaders was in the end endorsed by the U.S. and French governments.

Were the international community now to stand by as the rebels reinstated the army, it would surely destroy the seeds of peace and self-rule that have been planted with great sacrifice by the Haitian people.

The writer, a © 2004 The Washington Post Company