Canada's troops head home

The end of the UN peacekeeping mission raises fears for Haiti’s future

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 8 1997

Canada's troops head home

The end of the UN peacekeeping mission raises fears for Haiti’s future

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 8 1997

Canada's troops head home


The end of the UN peacekeeping mission raises fears for Haiti’s future

The Haitian village of La Mielle, high in the country’s remote eastern hills, is home to some 500 people and an unknown number of pigs, chickens and wandering goats. As of last week, it also boasts a brand-new school— courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer. It is a modest structure of plywood and corrugated iron, but a distinct improvement on the old one, a 60-year-old shack with a dirt floor and a leaky roof. Canadian peacekeepers built La Mielle’s new school in the last few weeks of their mission to Haiti, ferrying the materials into the hills by helicopter. As they prepared to leave the country, they went back up to the village and turned it over to the people. There were speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony— and a sad acknowledgment that even a oneroom schoolhouse must still come as a gift from foreigners dropping out of the sky.



“Our own government has no presence here at all,” said the local mayor, a 30-year-old woman named Olenn Alcimais. “Nothing.” The Canadians’ mission to Haiti ended officially on Nov. 30, when the United Nations peacekeeping mandate expired. The 1,200 UN troops—including 650 Canadians— were to start flying out this week. For 2 lk years, they patrolled the streets, trained a new national police force and gave Haiti’s shaky young democracy a chance to take root. As they leave, the country is quiet. There is little sign of what some had predicted and many had feared: a slide back into violence and anarchy. Publicly, Canadian and UN officials say the 5,500-strong Haitian National Police, created in 1995 to replace the corrupt and repressive army, is ready to take over. Privately, they list a host of problems that make Haiti’s future cloudy at best. The young police force—despite

training from Canadians, Americans and others—is already plagued by corruption. Drug money is pouring in as South American traffickers channel more and more shipments through Haiti. The economy of the poorest country in the Americas remains stagnant, inflation is rising—and the government has been paralyzed since midsummer. Altogether, as the Canadian force’s commander, Col. Gaston Côté, notes laconically, “it is not a rosy picture.”

Nonetheless, it is time to go home. The UN mandate was extended several times at the request of the Haitian government. But now, even the Haitian who benefited most from the presence of foreign soldiers agrees it is time for his country to go it alone. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic former priest who was restored to power three years ago by 20,000 American troops, told Maclean’s that he is grateful for help from Canada and other nations. But, he added, Haitians must take charge of their

own destiny. “H we don’t assume responsibility for our own security, how can we be responsible for our sovereignty?” Aristide said at the sprawling white mansion on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, that is both his home and his political headquarters. “It’s up to us now.”

Still, it is precisely the ability of Haiti’s political elite to run the country that most worries the departing UN forces. Aristide’s friend and ally, René Préval, succeeded him as president early last year—the first democratic transition in a violent history that includes the brutal rule of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and that of his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), who went into exile in 1986. But for the past five months, Préval’s government has been mired in a crisis that might be comic if it did not have such tragic consequences.

Aristide, while professing support for his successor, publicly attacked Préval’s program of privatization and cuts in government spending. Préval’s first prime minister, Rosny Smarth, resigned in June, and Parliament has refused to confirm a replacement. Préval has no party to back him, and a top UN official frankly dismisses him as “very ineffective.” The result is that Haiti’s government—almost non-existent at the best of times—has virtually ceased to function. An estimated $142 million in loans from such bodies as the World Bank is stuck in limbo, awaiting formal acceptance by the government. Inflation is running at 17 per cent, and life is harder than ever for the mass of people.

Enrique ter Horst, the Venezuelan diplomat who headed the UN mission, concluded sadly as he prepared to leave last week that “democracy has not been able to deliver the goods—and that’s a dangerous situation.” And Jean-Robert Sabalat, a onetime foreign minister under Aristide who is now an independent member of Haiti’s Senate, says the government has wasted a rare opportunity. The right-wing forces that long dominated Haiti were thoroughly discredited when American troops toppled the violent military regime of Lt.Gen. Raoul Cédras in 1994 and brought Aristide back from exile. But, says Sabalat, the people now in power “don’t know how to run things, and it’s a real pity for the country.” The antics of the politicians are quickly put in perspective as Sabalat excuses himself from an interview to attend to a real emergency: 10 people have drowned in a canal in

Port-au-Prince’s worst slum, Cité Soleil, because no one bothered to tell the people living there that it would be flooded with water.

“No one would think of that,” he says.

The Canadian soldiers who patrolled the streets and alleys of the capital saw their share of such things. For months, while the new national police force was being trained, they provided the only security in a notoriously violent city—stopping fights, taking sick people to hospital, at times rescuing

For months, the Canadians provided the only security in a violent city

suspected thieves from the rough justice of a vigilante mob. In recent weeks, they withdrew from the streets and let the Haitian police take over. But as Sgt. Jérôme Fillion, a 30-year-old native of Chicoutimi, Que., led the last Canadian foot patrol through Croix des Bossales, the city’s sprawling portside market, last week, it was clear they had built up considerable goodwill.

They threaded their way among stalls displaying peppers, rice and meat crawling with flies, and women crouched on the ground hawking lumps of charcoal. Whole families subsist in hovels fashioned from cardboard and sacking; the worst-off lie on a patch of fetid dirt. But there was no sense of menace.

The soldiers were greeted with friendly cries in Creole of bonsoir and bons blans (literally: good whites). “The Americans couldn’t walk through here,” said Cpl. Ker-

lande Mibel, a 22-year-old Haitian-Canadian from Montreal who serves as a communications specialist and translator. “The people hate them. But for us, it’s OK.”

The last Canadian contingent, which arrived in August, also leaves behind two dozen so-called humanitarian projects— including new wells and the school at La Mielle. The school cost only $10,000, but let the Canadians leave with a sense of having contributed something, however small, to a country in dire need of almost everything. The village has no electricity or running water; women (rarely men) walk an hour and a half every day along rutted paths to fetch drinking water in plastic pails. Cpl. Michel LaGrimoniere, 35, from Granby, Que., helped to build the school. A few days before it was finished, he attended a church service in the village, and found himself moved by the gratitude of local people: “It gave me goosebumps.”

The United Nations’ key mission was to support and train the Haitian National Police, the only armed force in a country of 7.2 million. For a nation with no tradition of honest and independent policing, that is a daunting task. Already, some 580 officers have been disciplined for corruption; another 170 have been fired and 60 of those are in prison for extortion, corruption or even murder. To reduce temptation, recruits are paid $426 a month —a handsome salary in a place where the average income per person is just $383 per year. But traditions die hard. ‘The moment you get power in this country, the tendency is to abuse it,” laments a senior UN official, “and the police are no exception.”

Drugs are one of the biggest problems. The U.S. Coast Guard has effectively stopped drug trans-shipments through nearby Puerto Rico in recent months, forcing traffickers to move their operations elsewhere—including Haiti. In one week in early November, officers in three police stations were implicated in stealing cocaine seized from smugglers. And drug money is flooding into the country’s banking system. Until recently, according to information received last week by UN officials, about $71 million a month was coming in as remittances from Haitians working abroad. Now, the figure is between $85 million and $113 million—and the dramatic jump is almost certainly due to drugs. The fear is that, in the absence of other economic activity, the drug trade could overwhelm the economy. “We don’t want to end up as a narco-democracy,” says Aristide. We have

to make sure the police force is clean, and we have a real democracy.” But, he cautioned, the process will be slow: “We are the inheritors of 200 years of institutionalized violence and corruption. We have to overcome that one step at a time.”

The new police face even more basic problems. Many stations, especially in rural areas, lack radios or phones. A visit to a station near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince found a dozen officers lounging about, with a few drinking beer on the street outside. Inside, prisoners in a crowded holding cell complained loudly that they had been there for four days, even though Haitian law guarantees a court appearance within 48 hours. Donated equipment is quickly smashed— and seldom repaired. Patrol cars emblazoned with the words “Gift of the Republic of China (Taiwan)” were on cement blocks, their tires missing and their interiors stripped. All that, along with the continuing government deadlock, persuaded the United Nations to keep 290 foreign police advisers in Haiti after the troops leave. Some two dozen Canadians will be among them, but the biggest group will be a so-called Quick Reaction Force of 90 heavily armed Argentinian paramilitaries that will give muscle to the ongoing UN presence.

They may well need it. Crime is rising,

with home invasions and car-jacking the latest trends. Many in Port-au-Prince believe that heavily armed gangs are waiting for the UN troops to leave before re-emerging in force. The good news, UN officials say, is that there is no sign that the violence is politically motivated. The army that ter-

A top UN official dismisses Préval as ‘very ineffective’

rorized Haiti under Cédras is dispersed, exiled or jailed. And the wonder is not that there is violence in such a deprived society—but that Haiti is relatively calm with only 5,500 inexperienced and ill-equipped police watching over seven million people. “More people are killed in New York City every day than here,” insists Senator Sabal-

at. “The population is remarkably stable.”

In fact, Brig.-Gen. Robin Gagnon, the Canadian who commands all UN troops in Haiti, distributes a chart showing Haiti with only seven murders per 100,000 people— about the same rate as Barbados and far down the list from El Salvador, with 145, and Colombia, with 88. The figures may well be highly questionable: collecting statistics in a place like Haiti is at best a dubious undertaking. But, insists Gagnon, “it’s not so bad here.” At the same time, he adds, “we don’t kid ourselves. We haven’t changed Haiti.”

Gagnon’s optimistic figures would surprise many in Port-auPrince’s chaotic markets. There, the talk last week was not about the departure of the foreign soldiers, but about the rising cost of living and how dangerous the streets are after dark. “There’s no security around here,” said Graçieuse Deroulien, who was selling mushrooms, peppers, beans and rice at the old indoor Iron Market. “You have to get home before the sun goes down—or that’s it,” she added, drawing a finger across her throat. “Only God is watching over us. No one else.” At the very least, it is no longer the bons blans from Canada. □