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Haiti The General vs. the Colonel

4 minute read
John Greenwald

The burly senior officer who strode into Haitian army headquarters in Port- au-Prince last week was greeted by delighted shouts of “Paulo!” But Colonel % Jean-Claude Paul, commander of the 700 elite troops at the Dessalines barracks who make up Haiti’s toughest fighting force, is far from universally adored. Critics call him a harsh commander whose soldiers have fired on unarmed civilians, and the U.S. indicted him in Miami last March for drug trafficking. Although Paul denies the charge, the indictment came to symbolize a growing rupture with the U.S. that threatened Haiti’s desire to advance from turmoil to democracy.

In a dramatic demonstration of that desire, Haiti’s newest government last week abruptly pushed Paul, 49, into retirement. The move came one day after a prodemocracy march by fiercely nationalistic Haitians turned into an anti- American protest and a rally for Paul. At 10:30 p.m. last Friday, a televised bulletin announced that Paul had retired from the army with a pension of $960 a month. Paul negotiated the agreement with Lieut. General Prosper Avril, his 1961 classmate at Haiti’s military academy, who is now President of the country. Lieut. Colonel Guy Francois, Paul’s U.S.-trained second-in-command, was named to succeed him as head of the Dessalines barracks.

Paul’s ouster removed a powerful supporter of Avril, who took office last month in a coup. But Paul’s presence had made it virtually certain that Washington would continue to withhold $70 million in aid that it cut off last November after a massacre by thugs and Haitian troops aborted a presidential election.

U.S. State Department officials praised the forced retirement but foresaw no resumption of aid until Avril begins to implement long-needed democratic reforms. Among Washington’s requirements: a timetable for elections for a civilian government. “This is a good first step,” said a State Department official. “We don’t want to take away from the fact that this enhances the climate, but we need to see more.” Officials noted with relief that Paul’s removal “will improve the prospects for increased cooperation in the fight against drugs.”

Haiti has become an increasingly important battleground in that fight. The Caribbean nation emerged as a drug capital last year after a U.S.-led crackdown partly choked off the Bahamas end of the pipeline to Miami. Forced to find a new route, Colombia-based narcotraficantes began flying cocaine to Haiti and transshipping it by boat to Miami. At first the clandestine incursion was little noticed. Endemic corruption and poverty made the island easy prey for the drug cartels. The country’s mountains and countless coves are well suited for smugglers. Drug agents have mapped more than 20 small airstrips in Haiti’s rugged interior, where landings and takeoffs are shielded from radar detection.

But what largely greased the way was the protection granted by well-rewarded provincial army officers who operated as virtually independent warlords. Drug- laden planes land regularly at the government airport in Cap-Haitien. An estimated 1,000 Colombians reportedly are in Haiti, some of whom are suspected of involvement in smuggling networks. “For 2 1/2 years the country has been without any effective central control, and these commanders had their own little fiefdoms,” said a young Haitian social scientist. “Many were obviously interested in quick profits.”

The swelling drug tide quickly swamped Haiti’s law-enforcement capabilities. Only 19 policemen have been assigned to antidrug squads throughout the country. Their only equipment is two jeeps and five radios that the U.S. provided in 1985. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last year persuaded Washington to earmark $200,000 for communications equipment to bolster Haitian drug enforcement. But the money has not yet been released.

Since August 1987, U.S. Customs officers have found nearly 6,000 lbs. of cocaine on Haitian freighters. Sources say that up to 13,000 lbs. of cocaine is routinely stockpiled in Haiti at any given time. That supply has made Haitian drug prices perhaps the lowest in the world and created severe addiction problems among youths in Port-au-Prince and other cities.

Avril vowed last week to wipe out the drug traffic. Noting that some officers discharged since the coup have been associated with narcotics, Avril said, “They had blemished the image of the armed forces.” Avril has also moved to disarm the remnants of the Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded secret police during the 28-year dictatorship of Francois (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), who fled in 1986. Although calling himself only an “accidental and provisional President,” Avril pledged to prepare the way for an “irreversible democracy.” Said he: “I am a missionary.” The President obviously expects his mission to be advanced by the retirement of the powerful but problematic Paul.

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