The Canadians have landed for a perilous Haiti mission
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The Canadians have landed for a perilous Haiti mission
Maj. Russell Hamsey grabs one of the many tele phones in his map-lined command post and dispatches the newly formed Haitian National Police to arrest a gang of youths caught throwing rocks at a United Nations truck. “Anything that happens in the country, I have to know about it,” he says. “Info comes in, action goes out.” As chief of current operations at the UN’s Haiti headquarters, Hamsey, a 36-year-old native of Winnipeg, controls the nerve centre for the entire country. Starting this week, he will have more company. Two Hercules C130 aircraft and five Airbus A300s will deposit the bulk of 750 troops promised by Ottawa to join Hamsey and others already on the ground in Port-au-Prince. It is a delicate mission that was barely debated at home but puts Canadians on the front lines of attempts to bolster Haiti’s fledgling democracy.
It is not a pretty place. A walkie-talkie on Hamsey’s belt crackles to life with an update on a corpse that a UN civilian team happened upon earlier that day. “The locals had a man hog-tied and stripped naked, who they were going to execute for the murder,” he says. Vigilante justice is common in a land where the population still believes that security forces are there to protect themselves, not the people. But taking the number of vigilante killings as a barometer of the UN’s success in Haiti, Hamsey insists there has been progress. “The number of murders we hear of is down to about one a day. There were four or five a day when I arrived last summer,” he says. “The atmosphere has gone from ‘no confidence’ to ‘some
confidence.’ ” It is the logic of the hopeful, who choose to see the glass one-fifth full rather than four-fifths empty. In the fall of 1994, when 22,000 American troops restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, there was not a drop of hope in that glass. Today, at least, the outright anarchy and indiscriminate slaughter that Haitians knew during the three years of Aristide’s exile have ended.
Now, as Washington withdraws its final troops, Canada has taken the lead, quickly and quietly committing $24 million to ensure an extension of the UN military presence in Haiti for an additional four months. With virtually no debate—Parliament was not in session—Canada agreed to take command in an effort to prevent a slide back into turmoil following the Feb. 29 end of the American deployment. ‘We’ve given Haiti a bit of a window of opportunity,” says Canadian Col. Bill Fulton, outgoing chief of staff of the previously Americanled UN mission. Now, Canadian Brig. Gen. Pierre Daigle, a veteran of the Oka crisis and of Canada’s deployment in Bosnia, will head a 1,900-strong foreign force, reduced from the 6,000 UN troops in the country since March, 1995. Many of the Canadians come from the 1st Royal 22nd Regiment (Vandoos) based in Valcartier, Que. Nearly 100 members of Edmonton’s 408 Tactical Helicopter squadron will serve a quick-reaction combat force.
Although members wear the UN’s blue beret, the Canadian con-
tingent operates outside the UN financial structure, due to an eleventh-hour diplomatic drama mounted by China. Bent on punishing Haiti for maintaining relations with Taiwan, Beijing demanded that the Security Council reduce the proposed 1,900-member commitment to only 1,200—assigned mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. By offering to pay for 750 troops separately, Canada broke the deadlock and saved the UN mission hours before the mandate expired on Feb. 29. China also managed to cut the term of the deployment to four months from six and stipulated that it not be extended further. There are now just three months left to the much-heralded “window”—and a new regime, stumbling through democratic government for the first time in Haiti’s 200-year history of independence, hopes to keep it open.
Last week, President René Préval paid a grateful visit to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in Ottawa, and then visited Montreal—home of 60,000 Haitians. The timing was perfect for Chrétien and his minister for international cooperation, Pierre Pettigrew, a candidate in the March 25 byelection in the Montreal constituency of Papineau/StMichel, which is a riding of 12,000 Haitian-Canadian immigrants. Reform party critics accused Pettigrew of at-
tempting to win votes with the visit, especially after his March 14 announcement of two new aid projects in Haiti worth $3.8 million.
Préval, a 52-year-old agronomist and an old friend of Aristide’s, had first stopped in Washington, where he also lobbied vigorously for increased aid to his nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Préval announced he would privatize four of 33 state-run enterprises, a move aimed at freeing up $6.3 million in frozen U.S. aid funds previously earmarked for Haiti. The country sorely needs it. According to the Washington-based Agency for International Development, one in eight Haitian children dies before the age of five. Only 25 per cent of households have toilet facilities and 31 per cent have electricity. The main form of political unrest facing UN troops is the ubiquitous roadblock, where masses of people stop traffic until a politician arrives on the scene. “You have to understand these people,” says Capt. Geneviève Proulx. “The only way they have to protest is to stop something that actually works.” Not surprisingly, foreign investment is at a standstill, hampering attempts to jump-start the economy.
Yet the country is calm—by Haitian standards. And that leads some to believe this year will be a turning point economically, much as last year, with its series of free elections, was a breakthrough politically. “As bad as it is, at least we can breathe—and talk,” says Jean-Yves Urfié, editor of the leftist Creole weekly Líbete. Urfié notes that the flow of electricity has increased recently from two hours a day to as much as 10 hours. Authorities project that it could rise to 20 hours by the fall. “At least we have reached a point where we have stability in the state machinery. Now, we can begin,” he says. That beginning is due to the U.S.-led intervention that ejected former Gen. Raoul Cédras after a reign of terror in which the army and militias murdered an estimated 3,000 people between 1991 and 1994.
The 22,000 American troops steadily dwindled. First a 9,000-strong multinational force took over, and it gave way to the UN force. President Bill Clinton’s goals, say critics of the policy, were minimalist, allowing his troops to make a heroic entrance and an election-year exit with mission—however limited—accomplished. The mandate to create a “safe and secure” environment, restore Aristide to power and oversee free and fair elections was largely achieved, say UN spokesmen. But they admit the final goal, that of
building a trusted civilian police force to ensure stability after the UN leaves, may be more elusive (page 34). “We knew it would be a staggering challenge,” says Canada’s Fulton. “The problems with criminals, gangs and thugs is probably going to continue.”
Fulton says any threat to Canadian troops comes more from economically motivated criminal violence than from warring political factions. Aristide’s main achievement, before constitutionally relinquishing the presidency to his elected successor, Préval, in February, was to disband the military, which had promoted the internecine violence that was tearing the country apart. ‘There are
weapons out there but not in huge quantities,” he says. “Nobody is trying to concentrate these weapons to put a threat to either the United Nations or the government of Haiti.” Still, many ordinary Haitians fear that there are still large caches of arms in the hands of right-wing oppositionists who are just waiting in the wings until the blancs, or foreigners, leave. “They will try again and again to disturb the democratic process, but they’ll never win as long as there is democracy here,” says Urfié.
Colin Granderson, director of the UN’s human rights monitoring mission, sees Haiti’s progress continuing—as long as nongovernmental aid still flows after the troops leave. “The end of the UN mission is not the end of the world,” he says. “Aristide came back. The country remained on an even keel. People write off Haiti too quickly.” Yet more and more Haitians feel that Aristide’s government failed to make a tangible difference, and that any gains could quickly be reversed if its successor fails to act. “If after these four months they don’t do anything for the people, believe me, we will have a big crash,” says Julio Larosilière, an independent senator representing the southern Les Cayes region. Larosilière, who has close ties to the business elite, says the only security the United States brought was security for the president. “I’d rather see the Canadians just give us the money and not send soldiers,” he says. “I could have built an infrastructure with the money the U.S. spent on its military presence here.”
Préval has targeted food self-sufficiency as the first priority for a nation where 70 per cent subsists on farming. So far, he has indicated slightly more willingness than Aristide to implement privatization in response to pressure from American officials and New York City money men. The World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund have also stopped their aid to Haiti until Préval makes clear his plans. “The Americans were in a hurry and they wanted the Haitians to do things their way,” said one Western diplomat. “The United States may have had its script. But the Haitians have their own script. You can’t force-feed them.”
Canada, by contrast, has tradition„ ally shown more respect for Haiti’s I sovereignty, helping out without dic| tating terms to Port-au-Prince. The g ties go back to the arrival of mis3 sionaries early this century and is I based in part on the French-lan£ guage connection. Still, when foreign affairs officials are asked why Haiti is such a priority for Ottawa— given that Canada’s two-way trade with Haiti was a paltry $30.7 million last year—the answers come as fuzzy allusions to the historic friendship the two countries share. Foreign affairs spokesman Colin Stewart says that Canada should promote stability in the Western Hemisphere. And there are, of course, the 60,000 Haitians in Montreal. At heart, he admits, Canada’s deployment is humanitarian, supporting a process that this past winter saw the first-ever peaceful transition from one Haitian government to another. Says Stewart: “Haiti has just gotten its fingernails over the rim of the vicious circle of violence and poverty.” There is a long way to go. “After years of dictatorship, people here think democracy means being able to do whatever you want,” gripes one woman in the upmarket suburb Pétionville. Maj. Hamsey at UN command headquarters sums it up with the statistics on a gang of 16 youths recently caught stealing from the foreign troops: “Six were sentenced to 45 days in jail and one was acquitted. Nine escaped by jumping out the bathroom window.” Still, Hamsay believes the Canadians are making a difference.‘We’ve saved lives. I feel good about that,” he says. Most of the roadblocks the troops face today are about quality of life. “People want electricity, people
want the trash picked up,” says Fulton. “They just want a house and a job.”
In Port-au-Prince, many were thankful that Canada was willing to extend the international security net. One waiter sported a Canadian flag on his lapel the day after the UN Security Council decision. In fact, had Ottawa actually held an open debate on the Haiti policy, neither opposition party would have tried to scuttle the mission. “Reform is certainly interested in Canada helping,” said Bob Mills, the party’s foreign affairs critic. “It seems the government expects to rubber-stamp these things. But we must know the cost.”
Foreign affairs and defence department officials say Ottawa has not asked for financial help from Washington—which now has 20,000 troops in Bosnia—nor for a commitment to send U.S. troops back to Haiti if things deteriorate. Analysts say that is unlikely to happen. The real risk to Haiti comes this summer when foreign troops leave. Until then, Canada is willing to back up its $40 million in foreign aid to Haiti with military muscle. Gen. Jean Boyle, Canada’s chief of defence staff, also touts the deployment as a much-needed morale booster for an army bowed by a planned cut of 12,000 positions and the inquiry into charges of misconduct in Somalia. The Maple Leaf patch on a uniform has become one of the few sights that also boosts morale on the destitute streets of Port-au-Prince.
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