Haiti’s Army Turns Back the Clock

It didn’t take long for the new order in Haiti to reveal itself. The day after President Aristide ‘left’ for exile, 34 union members at the Ouanaminthe garment assembly factory run by the Dominican Grupo M company, were fired. The next morning, when the 600-strong workforce decided to strike, a group of armed men launched a violent attack. Some unionists were handcuffed, many others were beaten up, and the workers were forced back inside the factory.

The aggressors were members of the so-called rebel force, fresh from their victory over the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They said they had been called to the factory by management, to deal with workers “causing trouble”.

As in so many Haitian towns, the Ouanaminthe insurgents had taken over from the police. Their leaders say they are former members of the Haitian Army, the FAD’H, a force demobilised by Aristide in 1995. Some, such as Guy Philippe and Gilbert Dragon, were trained by the US in Ecuador and flown home to senior positions in the new Haitian police force in the mid-1990s.

When Aristide’s predecessor, President Rene Preval, discovered them plotting a coup back in October 2000, Philippe, Dragon and a handful of other police chiefs, fled to the neighbouring Dominican Republic. There they carried on plotting, meeting with representatives of Haitian opposition parties such as Paul Arcelin and Jean-Baptiste Joseph, and with former members of the FAD’H death squad, the FRAPH, like Louis Chamblain.

Throughout 2003, their followers conducted a low level insurgency in the remote border region with the Dominican Republic that claimed around 30 lives. In February, their campaign suddenly caught fire and within weeks, an armed insurrection had toppled Aristide. The rebels’ leader Guy Philippe triumphantly told a press conference in the capital, Port-au-Prince: “I am the chief.” Asked what he meant, he said, “the military chief.”

Although the insurgents’ links to the businessmen heading the Group of 184 coalition that led the anti- Aristide protest movement remain sketchy, it is clear that the armed and unarmed elements of the rebellion are moving closer together.

When downtown Port-au-Prince was besieged by looters in early March, Maurice Lafortune, head of the Chamber of Commerce and a leading figure in the Group of 184, called on Philippe and his men to restore order. Another G184 leader, the sweatshop owner, Charles Henri Baker, could hardly contain his admiration for the “liberators”, speaking of the need for an army to protect businesses from “the mob”. Political party leaders, including the long-time US favourite, Evans Paul, held friendly talks with Philippe and other insurgent leaders.

Amnesty International protested about the apparent political influence of convicted murderers such as Chamblain and the Goniaves FRAPH chief, Jean Tatoune. “The last thing the country needs is for those who committed abuses in the past to take up leadership positions,” it said.

As ever though, the US attempted to maintain the existent power structure during the transition. Philippe quickly announced his men would lay down their arms, after a dressing down from senior officers in the US military intervention force. Days later, Philippe responded to the murder of demonstrators celebrating Aristide’s departure, with the words: “very soon I will be obliged to order my troops to take up arms again.”

Continued violence and instability in Haiti, will increase the pressure to re-instate the FAD’H. Foreign governments that have committed peace-keeping troops want their forces out as soon as possible, and the political parties that control the interim government are beholden to the forces that enthroned them.

Behind the scenes, members of the country’s tiny elite, especially the assembly sector businessmen who bankroll the political parties, want the FAD’H back to guarantee the established order. It has done so ever since its creation during the US occupation of 1915-34.

CHARLES ARTHUR is director of the Haiti Support Group and author of ‘Haiti in Focus; a guide to the people, politics and culture.'”