Haiti's discharged troops a threat to democracy Ex-army men are linked to assassination plots, kidnappings, assaults


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- During three decades of dictatorship, they were called "little kings" and used to intimidate and brutalize the populace.

Now, nearly two years after the democratically elected Haitian government disbanded the country's armed forces, these former soldiers are again being cited as a threat to security and political stability here.

Discharged troops have been blamed for an assault on police headquarters earlier this month, in what the police say was revenge for the arrest of 20 other former soldiers.

Haitian officials, from President Rene Preval on down, have also pointed to the involvement of former members of the armed forces in assassination plots, robberies, kidnappings and other crimes.

"The military are instruments of political destabilization," Preval said in an interview. "But behind them you will find the politicians who are pulling the strings, and the people who are really committing these actions, the economic sector."

About 6,500 Haitian soldiers and officers were demobilized after U.S. troops landed here in September 1994 and restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, three years after he had been overthrown in a military coup.

"These soldiers have never really been under duress or faced a challenge before," a Latin American diplomat here said. "But now they have lost their status in the community and can be easily manipulated by anyone who offers money or leadership."

Concern about the danger posed by discharged soldiers has been continual since Aristide's return, but it has grown considerably over the last month.

In mid-July, Lt. Gen. Claude Raymond, who was army chief of staff during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, which ended in 1986, and still enjoys some prestige among the ranks, was arrested and charged with committing "terrorist acts in the framework of a process to destabilize public authority and order."

The same day Raymond and three associates were jailed, Andre-Pierre Armand, leader of the Association of Unjustly Discharged Soldiers, which lobbies on behalf of the demobilized soldiers, denounced what he called "a plot to destabilize the government" that entailed assassinating Aristide and Preval. Three days later, Armand was shot in the head and killed at his home.

"The plot is already completely organized," Armand told radio reporters just before his death. "It only remains to be put into action."

One major source of discontent among the former soldiers is financial. While many officers have either gone into exile or landed jobs with business groups still sympathetic to the old regime, ordinary enlisted men have been largely frustrated in their efforts to recover the pensions, severance pay and military-bank savings accounts they say are due them.

"We're not asking for anything that is not ours," said Wilto Eliance, an eight-year veteran who said 20 percent of his $85-a-month salary had been withheld from him and deposited in such accounts. "With the money that is owed us, we can start our own businesses and feed our families."

The pension and savings funds were looted when Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and other members of the military high command fled the country in October 1994. Records, too, were destroyed, and the Ministry of Defense, which was in charge of those accounts, no longer exists.

Still other discharged soldiers are also demanding that their military salaries continue to be paid.

They argue that the formal dissolution of the armed forces in accordance with the constitution is not yet complete and that they are therefore not cashiered but on a sort of extended leave.

"No decision has been taken, but there have been discussions with the government of Haiti as to what further can be done to address the grievances" about pensions and savings "and set that right," said William L. Swing, the U.S. ambassador here.

But, he said, the United States supports Preval's position that the armed forces have been legally abolished.

Thus far, the Haitian government appears to have done little to address the discontent, other than to criticize the soldiers and warn them of severe punishment if they take actions against the state.

The only effort to "recycle" the cashiered soldiers into normal life and productive activities is a job-training course run by the International Organization for Migration, an independent group based in Geneva, with money from the United States and other international donors.

More than 4,500 former soldiers have enrolled in that six-month program, studying to become mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, welders or computer operators while they earn "training stipends" close to their military salaries.

But only 8 percent have been able to find jobs in their new trades, according to Marco Bourasso, the program's director.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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