U.S. troops occupy a beleaguered country. Now, the hard part begins.
After months of threats and escalating tension, the arrival of American troops in Haiti last week proved mercifully peaceful. Instead of gunfire, there was widespread jubilation—the result of an eleventh-hour deal struck by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter with Haitian dictator Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cedras, whose cronies have terrorized the Caribbean nation since ousting democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. But although the regime promised to surrender power by Oct. 15, the A mericans and their UN allies, including Canada, still face a daunting array of challenges. Can Cedras and his men be trusted? Is a stable government even possible in a country where for two centuries political opponents have routinely slaughtered one another? /Is the UN-sanctioned intervention force prepared the ground for the scheduled arrival this week of the first wave of Canadian police and peacekeepers, Maclean’s Montreal Bureau Chief Barry Came filed this report from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince:
Like squatters in a high-technology age, the U.S. military began the long process of digging in to take over Haiti last week. Five days after moving into the blood-spattered and beleaguered Caribbean nation, close to 9,000 soldiers had arrived from what is expected to be a force eventually numbering more than 15,000. The majority of the troops came from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, a storied unit of 12,000 battle'1*.; M tested light infantrymen
normally based about 50 km south of Kingston, Ont., L ** in Watertown, N.Y. And
i while most had not moved
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At the airport on the outskirts of the city, the presence was so massive that it
continued to draw throngs of curious Haitians, creating oftenbizarre scenes. Thousands strong, the crowds lined the wiremesh fence surrounding the airport, chattering happily among themselves while gulping local bottled water and gawking at the mystifying activity beyond. Peering back from the other side of the fence, only a few feet away, were the young troopers from the 10th Mountain—bivouacked in freshly dug foxholes under camouflaged tents, dressed in identically camouflaged jungle fatigues and armed to the teeth. Overhead, a steady stream of helicopters beat the air while just beyond, the airport’s tarmac lay jammed with the panoply of modem warfare. Tanks and armored vehicles bristling with antennas were parked along the airstrip’s perimeter, guarding the huge Galaxy C-5A jet transports that occasionally lumbered along the run-
way in preparation for takeoff.
Sometimes, there were exchanges between the two worlds. One day last week, for example, a young man clad in a T-shirt, blue jeans and a battered Chicago White Sox baseball cap wrapped his fingers around the fence’s mesh and shouted at a grimly serious, heavily sweating soldier, roughly the same age. “Thank you,” the Haitian called in English, repeating the phrase over and over until he finally managed to wrest a smile and a wave from the blond-haired, blue eyed trooper. “I just wanted to come and have a look at soldiers you don’t have to fear,” the Haitian, who identified himself as Evans Desbiens, later remarked in French. The 28-year-old operator of a small photocopying stall in downtown Port-au-Prince said he was oveijoyed at the arrival of the American troops, who might finally bring enough peace and stability to Haiti to allow him to, as he put it, “get on with my life.” Elsewhere, however, there were signs of deeply rooted enmity between those who suffered most under the Cédras regime and the more prosperous, fair-skinned elite. Outside a downtown Port-au-Prince hotel, a group of taxi drivers whose vehicles were blocking the driveway reacted angrily when the building’s owner asked them to move. “I’m not going to take this shit any more,” one of the drivers erupted. “The Americans are in charge of security here now.”
Not all Haitians were as pleased with the prospect of what may well turn out to be a lasting occupation of the country. Chief among those last week were the 200 soldiers attached to the Haitian army’s Heavy Weapons Company. A notorious unit based in the village of Frère in the hills overlooking the capital, the company is widely viewed as a symbol of all that is wrong with the Haitian military. It has played a key role in almost every military coup that Haiti has suffered in recent years, including the one that overthrew Aristide. Armed with around 50 anti-aircraft guns and a dozen armored personnel carriers, the company is well trained and well equipped by the meagre standards of the Haitian armed forces. But the Heavy Weapons Company is now in the process of being disarmed and dismantled by the commanders of the U.S. military in Haiti.
The action was taken last week in the wake of the furor that followed when club-wielding Haitian police and soldiers beat to death at least two pro-American demonstrators within sight of the 10th Mountain troopers guarding the seaport. After paying a visit to Haitian military commander Raoul Cédras a day after the incident, the overall U.S. commander, Lt.-Gen. Hugh Shelton, ordered the destruction of all of the Heavy Weapons Company’s equipment and the dispersal of the troops attached to the unit. Meanwhile, U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry hastily dispatched 1,000 military police to Haiti and announced
new rules of engagement allowing American troops to use deadly force to keep the peace.
In the eyes of most Haitians, those moves were the first significant steps towards the eventual reform of the entire Haitian armed forces. “It was a very telling action,” said one South American ambassador who knows the country well. “Everyone here is fully aware of that particular unit’s importance, both actually and symbolically.”
Within hours of their landing in Port-auPrince, the U.S. troops sent another clear message to Cédras’s loyalists by taking control of Fort Dimanche, a walled two-acre compound whose Haitian guardians surrendered without a fight. “Fort Dimanche is the most feared place in Haiti,” said 2nd Lieut. Jeffrey Shuck, the 24-year-old commander of the U.S. platoon assigned to capture the facility. ‘Thousands upon thousands of people have checked in here and never come out.” Indeed, dictators François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), used the innocuous mustard-colored buildings to torture and murder opponents during their nearly three-decade reign of terror. Shuck’s platoon found that the barracks had been transformed from dungeons into storerooms for the piles of weapons used by civilian paramilitary groups, the notorious attachés who terrorized poor Haitians in the nearby Cité Soleil slum. Locked behind heavy metal gates were stacks of assorted guns that ranged from American Civil War i muskets to Israeli-made Galil automatic | weapons. Said Shuck: “There’s no more fear in Fort Dimanche.”
By week’s end, however, the U.S. presence could only be felt in the capital and around Cap-Haïtien, the country’s secondlargest city on the island’s north coast. Certainly, there were few signs of any U.S. military activity in the area between Port-auPrince and the frontier with the Dominican Republic, 60 km to the east. At the main border crossing at Mal Paso, wedged between a mountain ridge and the shores of a saltwater lake, it was very much business as usual. As border guards from both countries looked on, a stream of small rowboats transporting contraband, mostly gasoline, traversed the lake. Anyone else trying to cross the frontier had a more difficult time. Haitian army officers at the post even refused entry last week to a United States Information Service officer stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.
In view of the rapidly building U.S. military presence elsewhere, that situation is unlikely to last much longer. A more important issue is how long the occupation itself will last. In Washington, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that the U.S. military operation “must be measured in months rather than weeks.” A second phase of the operation, under a multinational UN force including Canada, will provide humanitarian aid and train a new Haitian police force
(page 24). Shalikashvili predicted that the UN troops would remain in the country through Haiti’s next scheduled presidential elections in December, 1995, and should be able to leave “no later than February or March, 1996.”
Despite that, Haiti’s rulers showed little evidence last week that they were preparing to step down by Oct. 15. The government of provisional President Emile Jonassaint issued a communiqué banning all public demonstrations and ordering police “to take all necessary measures” to maintain public order. In a later statement, the government said that it would “very soon” announce a timetable for elections by the end of the year to select more than 2,000 senators, parliamentary deputies, mayors and local officials.
Meanwhile, some independent analysts warned of the danger of long-term instability
in Haiti. They noted that the military rulers who signed last week’s accord—notably Cédras and his right-hand man, Brig.-Gen. Philippe Biamby—are the same men who gave a solemn undertaking in July, 1993, that they would step down and leave the country. Instead, the junta blatantly defied the socalled Governors Island agreement. Last week’s pact, which was far less stringent than the earlier agreement, gave Cédras, Biamby and Port-au-Prince police chief Lt.-Col. Michel Fransois the right to stay in Haiti, immune from prosecution for the deaths of some 3,000 Aristide supporters since the 1991 coup—and free to pursue their own political agenda. Their presence is certain to complicate the already awesome task of transforming the hemisphere’s poorest country into a peaceable democracy. □
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