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Haiti: Walking a Thin Line

10 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

When Evans Paul, the youthful mayor of Port-au-Prince who has been in hiding from the Haitian junta for the past three years, emerged to reclaim his office last Thursday, he brought along a kind of personal insurance policy: 40 American MPs and soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Under their watchful gaze, the man who is second in popularity to President Jean- Bertrand Aristide was able to deliver an emotional speech celebrating the end of military rule and admonishing his fellow Haitians to exercise patience, mercy and restraint. His only rhetorical barb was reserved for junta leader Lieut. General Raoul Cedras. “Bye lakou blanche!” he declared. Rough translation: “Hit the road!”

Bold words. Too bold, perhaps. Barely two hours after the mayor’s address, an explosive device was tossed from a seaside warehouse, tearing into a crowd of several thousand celebrating Paul’s return. The blast killed six, injured another 43 and sparked a rampage by furious Aristide supporters. After U.S. soldiers prevented the mob from venting its wrath on several men suspected of throwing the bomb, the crowd turned on the warehouse itself. And in a sample of what rich Haitians have predicted could engulf the entire country, the throng stripped the building bare. They took everything: steel drums, bags of cement, iron bars, even coils of wire — but this time no Americans intervened.

The melees underscored the volatile state of affairs in the capital and the precariousness of American control, despite an overwhelming military superiority. On Friday hours of looting and a bloody street battle marred a democracy march marking the three-year anniversary of Aristide’s ouster. As gunmen loyal to the military junta fired into the lines of marchers near the headquarters of the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, dozens of militiamen armed with machetes and sticks fought viciously with Aristide supporters. By the end of the day, at least six had died and 20 more were wounded. This time too U.S. troops made no effort to break up the violent clashes and stood by as Haitians looted two warehouses they believed belonged to the police.

^ By Saturday, the attaches’ first brutal attacks had succeeded in violently dismantling three separate pro-democracy marches. Gunmen swaggered through the streets of the capital, boasting that they would kill anyone who tried to shut them down. Such eruptions of violence dispelled the spin, confidently put forward by one Clinton Administration official, that everything was going well and unfolding according to a White House plan “adopted months before we went ashore.” Americans were confused by successive scenes of trouble in Haiti: sometimes U.S. soldiers stepped in, sometimes they did not. The true nature of American involvement remained hazy as the troops struggled to keep their balance between bitterly opposing camps in a dangerously uneasy climate, and the Administration tried to gauge what Congress would tolerate. As U.S. lawmakers began debating setting a date for withdrawal, the disorder offered a graphic reminder of how vulnerable Bill Clinton’s policy is when mayhem erupts in Haiti.

At the heart of the American occupation is a murky ambivalence about what it means, how it will be accomplished and when it will be over. No matter how crisply the White House tried to frame the answers to these questions, events last week proved that the rules of the game were being fashioned on the ground on a day-by-day, case-by-case basis. The improvisational approach only seemed to force Washington into an ever deepening commitment. On Thursday Pentagon spokesman Dennis Boxx announced that rather than withdrawing American forces, the U.S. was actually increasing its troop presence. Together with the troops at sea, the total number serving in the Haitian campaign — some 28,800 — eclipses the 26,000 Americans who invaded Panama in 1989 and the 25,800 sent to Somalia. “I’m very concerned,” a senior military officer said at week’s end, “that the mission’s creeping, and we don’t even know it yet.”

Yet the ugly snapshots from Port-au-Prince did not convey the full picture of the occupation. Despite chaos in the streets, U.S. troops secured one objective after another with clocklike precision. On Monday, as Clinton announced he was lifting the bulk of the U.S. economic sanctions, American MPs moved into five of the capital’s most notorious police precincts. That same day, the Coast Guard returned the first installment of what is hoped will be a reverse wave of returning refugees. Then on Tuesday, U.S. forces secured Haiti’s simple white parliament building, reopening it to its democratically elected legislators. The next morning, amid much backslapping between old friends and hostile looks dividing old adversaries, 11 Senators and 54 Deputies gathered to deliberate on the terms of an amnesty for the men who had forced many of them to spend the past three years in hiding or in exile. Progress was slow: by week’s end, no one was sure an agreement could be passed by the Oct. 15 deadline.

Meanwhile, out in the countryside the disintegration of the Haitian military left a yawning power vacuum. In the north, around the country’s second largest city of Cap Haitien, civil authority virtually collapsed following the fire fight on Sept. 24 in which a company of Marines cut down 10 Haitian police officers. Since then, the army and police have evaporated throughout whole sections of the region.

For the vast majority of Haitians who support Aristide, freedom from the hated military was something to be welcomed joyfully. In Cap Haitien, while residents celebrated the return of electricity for the first time in three years — courtesy of the Marines — only one uniformed Haitian soldier remained at his post. The rest of the garrison — from Lieut. Colonel Claudel Josaphat, the feared and brutal regional military commander, to telephone repairmen who owed their jobs to the de facto government — had fled. Shortly after U.S. forces arrived, a delegation of local dignitaries approached Marine commander Colonel Thomas Jones. “I guess you are the new mayor of Cap Haitien,” their spokesman announced. Asked what were the capabilities of the remaining local government in the nearby town of Gonaives, one American captain explained: “They could consume oxygen and occupy space,” but not much more.

The breach left by the departing authorities forced U.S. units to devise jury-rigged solutions to local problems never anticipated by the planners in Washington: stamping papers for the sale of a pig; issuing market permits; settling marital spats. In Gonaives, Captain Edmond Barton, head of a Special Forces unit, was asked to mediate a dispute over who owned a bicycle. “Every time I deal with someone in the village, I get criticized for taking sides,” said Barton. “We try to show them we are being fair, but everyone complains.”

The most surprising aspect of the collapse of civil authority outside the capital was the restraint exhibited by Aristide’s supporters. In Cap Haitien, several attache thugs were escorted safely through an angry crowd by Aristide men, who warned that reprisals might be used as an excuse to block the return of their exiled President. The captives were passed over the razor-wire barricades and safely delivered into the hands of American sentries.

The little violence that did arise was targeted not at the minions of the military junta, but its symbols. At the main army barracks in Cap Haitien, crowds stripped police and army buildings as if they were exorcising an evil spirit. For most of the week, bonfires fed by old arrest records and prison sentencing memos left a dull blue haze over the town’s courtyards. Outside the home of the region’s despised military commander, his band’s tubas, trombones and horns were piled up to form a barrier in the middle of the street, then littered with thousands of pages of musical scores. “It was their music,” said one looter. “We don’t need to hear it anymore.”

Crowds also made a point of assisting in disarming the population. In the capital, where the U.S. was offering $50 for handguns and $300 for mortars, only 280 guns were collected. But up north, hundreds of weapons were spontaneously dumped at the feet of U.S. troops. In the manner of a religious offering, crowds brought in everything from vintage World War II rifles to ceremonial swords. At one American checkpoint, people even turned over two green hoods used to cover prisoners’ heads during beatings. “They just hand them over and leave,” said an amazed Special Forces officer. “They don’t want guns turned on them again, I guess. The people are trying to do our job for us.”

While U.S. troops appeared delighted at the level of good behavior, supporters of the Haitian military remained terrified by the latent potential for popular uprising. They are haunted by a vision of wild rampages in which mobs seek retribution by destroying the homes of their oppressors. Those fears were only exacerbated by the Americans’ success at squelching the Haitian military, which has tended to embolden pro-Aristide forces. In several cases, the sheer presence of American troops has inspired crowds to attack stragglers from the Haitian military. To discourage this, the U.S. has actually cut the size of its patrols in some neighborhoods.

The disorder in Port-au-Prince underscored the need for some serious policing of the streets where local forces have been told to hang back. On Thursday former New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly took charge of the 1,000-strong international monitoring force in Puerto Rico, which the U.S. is sending to Haiti to restrain and retrain local authorities: 300 monitors were to arrive by the weekend. But it will be months before the new Haitian police can be counted on to enforce civic order fairly. In the meantime, the U.S. wants to make clear that it will not tolerate mob violence, but is uncertain how to convey the message.

The Pentagon continues to worry that G.I.s will be forced into the gap as Haitians fight one another. An unreleased army report paints a bleak picture of the future, calling the occupation a “prescription for disaster.” Author Donald Schulz, a Caribbean expert at the Army War College, writes, “We can train and otherwise try to professionalize the Haitian military and police, but as long as the dominant culture places a premium on authoritarianism, dishonesty and the use of force, the new military and police will eventually slip back into the patterns of the old.”

The White House adamantly maintains that despite the bloody incidents, the operation is proceeding well. One official even said the Administration prefers the current situation, with all its tenuousness and unease, to the alternative — troops that blasted their way into Haiti saddled with running the entire country. “I would much rather be where we are,” he declared, “than where we could have been.”

Reassuring? Not really. The Administration seemed publicly determined to hold steady as last week’s mayhem was beamed back to the states on CNN cameras, but some senior officials privately expressed doubts. “There is no question,” admitted one, “that we are going to be tested every day in our ability to try to provide order and move the nation to a place where it can deal with these issues on its own.” One need only glimpse the recurrent mob scenes in Port-au-Prince to realize that the future of democracy in Haiti — and with it, perhaps, the success of the Clinton presidency — now hangs in a delicate balance.

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