Official: Haiti to restore army despite resistance

November 11, 2011 - 5:30 PM
Haiti Bringing Back the Army

Samson Chery, 42, center, former member of Haiti's dissolved army, gives a press conference as civilian volunteers stand behind in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday Nov. 9, 2011. Former and would-be soldiers criticized the administration of Haiti's President Michel Martelly after Martelly said his plans to revive the national army would instead be a

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — President Michel Martelly is going forward with a plan to restore his country's disbanded army even though diplomats have told him their countries will not fund the project, a senior government official told The Associated Press.

Martelly recently met with diplomats, including representatives of the U.S., European Union and Brazil, who suggested shoring up the national police rather than devoting resources to an army, given its long history of human rights abuses. Martelly was not persuaded, the official said.

The president was somewhat dismissive when told by the diplomats that the international community would not pay for the new army. "He said, 'Who asked you to pay for my army?,'" according to the official, who agreed to discuss the matter Thursday night only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the meeting.

The president plans to issue a decree Nov. 18 that will reinstate the army under the command of a former colonel and will ask hundreds of former soldiers to reapply, the official said.

The force will initially total about 500 soldiers intended to guard the borders, help fight drug trafficking, protect the country's few remaining forests from illegal timber harvesting and help in natural disasters, the official said. It will take shape in June.

"We are going to act surely and slowly," the official told AP. "We aren't going to do anything in a hurry."

Martelly, whose government relies on international aid to finance most of its activities, said at the meeting that he would find a way to raise the money for the military.

Both Martelly and his opponent in this year's runoff election pledged to restore Haiti's military, an idea that resonates with many Haitians who see such a force as a source of national pride, potential jobs and a way to keep order in a chaotic country. Some also see it as a replacement for the nearly 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers who came to Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004.

But it is also an idea that frightens many people inside and outside Haiti, where the army frequently inserted itself into politics and became a tool of repression.

Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, after he was ousted by a military coup in 1991 and then restored to power three years later with the help of the U.S. Former members of the military and political opponents assert that his decree was not valid because it violated the constitution.

Martelly's administration said in a report sent to various embassies that it would need $95 million to launch its new military force.

The new plan, presented last month at the National Palace, carries a more modest, $25 million price tag. Martelly issued a statement Saturday calling it a "new public security force."

The government plans to pay for the project by taking money from other government ministries. The army will be run by the Interior Ministry, the official said.

Each department will be required to pay between 1 percent to 5 percent of its budget, the official said. Inevitably, the bulk of that money will come from outside sources, which provide 60 percent to 70 percent of the government's $2 billion budget.

Jon Piechowski, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said in a statement that the United States, the Haitian government and other countries with embassies in Haiti agreed that the Haitian National Police, known by its acronym HNP, should be the center of foreign support instead of the army.

"The important thing here is that the U.S. and Haitian government and the rest of the international community are all in agreement that the HNP should remain the focal point of efforts to improve security and rule of law," Piechowski wrote in an email.

Referring to the army as a "civil defense corps," he said it would not detract from efforts to strengthen the police.

The police force, which has only 8,500 officers in a country of 10 million people, has been the focus of international efforts at reform.

One Martelly opponent said building a new army will come at the expense of the police.

"The president needs to stop pushing for the army and reinforce the national police," said Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, a vocal critic of the president. "The police could provide security throughout the whole country."

The date set for Martelly to announce the decree, Nov. 18, is a national holiday marking the last major fight between Haitian and French forces before Haiti secured its independence in 1804. He is expected to tell hundreds of former soldiers and their followers to stay calm.

In recent months, bands of ex-soldiers have been training camouflage-clad would-be recruits in the capital and countryside with the hopes of re-enlisting or securing a job, raising concerns among international officials and Martelly opponents like Jean-Charles that they could be used as private militias.

On Tuesday, Samson Chery, a former sergeant who has led several dozen soldiers in the hills above Port-au-Prince in weekly training exercises, met with government officials along with his colleagues.

He said Friday by telephone that he looked forward to the army's official return.

"The minute the decree comes out we will wait for orders," Chery said. "And we will march."

Their eagerness to enlist, however, is of concern to Martelly, said the government official.

"This horrifies Martelly and he doesn't condone this," said the government official.