Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Replace Haiti's Section Chiefs

THE resignations of Haitian Gens. Raoul Cedras and Philippe Baimbi, and the departure last week of Col. Michel Francois to the Dominican Republic, remove only the first of two major obstacles to restoring democracy in Haiti.

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 United States troops seized the headquarters of FRAPH, a small, urban, terrorist group with links to the military. In 24 hours FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant instructed his followers to turn in their weapons.

About these ads

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 (chef-de-section) 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.

The attaches are Haiti's death squads. They are also the ``volunteers'' who paraded through the streets of Port-au-Prince, and the hooligans who, at the bidding of their military bosses, 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 Jean-Bertrand 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 this good will and revive memories of an earlier US intervention.

About these ads

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 US policy to form ``national guards'' (or, in the case of Haiti, the gendarmerie d'Haiti) to maintain order after US 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. A first step should be to dismantle the system of section chiefs and their attaches, as required by the constitution, and hold elections for municipal councils. That will require outmaneuvering Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, who seems to have other plans.

While making a show of assisting US officers in decommissioning the Army's useless armored personnel carriers and field artillery, General Cedras has quietly distributed guns and grenades to the attaches.

These are intended to be used for assassination attempts on Aristide and members of his Cabinet, and, by some accounts, for terrorist attacks on US forces, to weaken public support for the US presence in Haiti. If he insists on his right to remain in Haiti after his resignation, Cedras will be able to govern his private army from his living room.

To counter this scheme, it is essential that Aristide condition the discretionary amnesty, which has been approved by the Haitian legislature, on the departure of Generals Cedras and Biambi to any country other than the adjoining Dominican Republic, which has a history of collusion with the Haitian military.

THAT would confront Haiti's military rules with the choice either of fleeing or of facing arrest for the murder of thousands of compatriots.

Either outcome will demoralize their paramilitary minions, whose loyalty is to individuals, not ideology or patriotism. Developments in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, suggest just how vulnerable the military network would become. After US marines killed 10 policemen, townspeople overran a neighboring military base and several smaller police outposts, turning over hundreds of weapons to the marines.

With the country's military leaders out of the way, US forces will be able to count on similar support nationwide. 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 US troops and to provide a secure base for the restoration of democracy.

Once the gunmen are disarmed, 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 US intervention will have made a lasting contribution to peace and democracy not only in Haiti, but, by example, throughout the hemisphere.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.