What to do next in Haiti

October 14, 1994|By Andrew Reding

WITH HAITI'S deposed dictator Raoul Cedras in exile in Panama, Michel Francois in the Dominican Republic, and Philippe Biambi, another of the coup leaders who ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, expected to flee soon, only the first of two major obstacles to restoring democracy in Haiti has been removed.

At last count, only 4,000 of an estimated 30,000 weapons distributed to paramilitary groups have been recovered. In an effort to address this, last week U.S. troops seized the headquarters of FRAPH, a small, urban, terrorist group with links the military. In 24 hours FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant instructed his followers to turn in their weapons.

Still virtually untouched, however, is a much wider and ultimately much more dangerous network of terror: the system of section chiefs and their attaches.

Haiti is divided into 500 municipal sections. Each is governed by a section chief appointed by the military. In exchange for a free hand in extorting money from residents, section chiefs are expected to root out dissent within their jurisdiction by recruiting gangs of thugs known as attaches or death squads.

They are the hooligans who staged the demonstration on the Port-au-Prince dock that turned back the USS Harlan County last year.

Significantly, the issue of section chiefs precipitated President Aristide's overthrow in the first place. Mr. Aristide came into office pledging to enforce the constitution of 1987, which mandates replacement of the section chiefs with elected municipal councils. More than any other action he took, his decision to remove the section chiefs struck at the core of the Army's power base, prompting the coup.

The intimate link between the Army and the section chiefs underscores the danger of believing that the military is reformable, or that the problem is confined to a handful of high-ranking officers.

Even low-ranking sublieutenants supervise section chiefs. That raises serious questions about administration plans to recruit Army officers and soldiers as the nucleus of a reformed Army and police force. Enlisted men have been trained to confront a hostile population, not observe the fine points of civilian police work.

The plan to recruit members of the Army is also bad public relations. Allowing members of an Army notorious for human rights violations to continue to police the citizenry threatens to erode existing goodwill toward the United States and revive memories of an earlier U.S. intervention.

It was, after all, the 1915-1934 occupation that bequeathed Haiti its present military system, from the officer corps to the section chiefs. In the first half of the century, it was U.S. policy to form "national guards" (or, in the case of Haiti, the gendarmerie d'Haiti) to maintain order after U.S. troops left a country. Unfortunately, these militarized police forces became tools for the establishment of dictatorships -- from that of the Somozas in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Noriega in Panama, to the Duvaliers in Haiti.

Mindful of that history, we should pursue a different strategy. The United States should dismantle the system of section chiefs and their attaches, as required by the constitution, and hold elections for municipal councils.

With the country's military leaders out of the way, U.S. forces should be able to count on nationwide support. Most Haitians are eager to help identify and disarm the thugs who have terrorized their neighborhoods and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Such a move is vital both to assure the safety of U.S. troops and to provide a secure base for the restoration of democracy.

Once the gunmen are disarmed, Mr. Aristide may want to ask the legislature to consider abolishing the armed forces outright. Haiti faces no serious external threat. All it needs is a civilian police force, trained to maintain order within a framework of respect for democracy and human rights.

Should that be the eventual outcome, the U.S. intervention will have made a lasting contribution to peace and democracy not only in Haiti, but, by example, throughout the hemisphere.

Andrew Reding directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute at The New School for Social Research in New York.

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