Aristide won't take sides as move is growing to abolish Haitian army


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Last Friday was Armed Forces Day in Haiti, a national holiday usually marked with great pomp and display but in recognition of the new political realities here, the elite army honor guard that paraded before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched without weapons.

And to a growing number of Haitians, it appears that merely humbling and disarming the military, which has ruled for all but a few months of the last decade, is not enough.

A campaign to abolish the armed forces is quickly gaining support among a populace weary of the corruption and brutality associated with the military.

"They have never done anything but beat us and rob and steal from us," said Wilner Desjardins, who sells beverages near the National Palace, echoing a sentiment expressed from one corner of the country to the other. "We don't want them and we don't need them. The country would be much better off without them."

Those sentiments are especially strong among the grass-roots organizations that are the backbone of the Lavalas movement that swept Father Aristide to power in the December 1990 elections. After he was overthrown in a military coup in September 1991, it was the left-leaning "popular sector" of the Lavalas movement that bore the worst military repression.

Leaders of such groups say they expect to make big gains in the parliamentary elections likely to be held early next year, capitalizing on the president's popularity and the public revulsion at the three years of military dictatorship that followed his ouster.

Then, they say, they plan to push in Parliament for a constitutional amendment or referendum that would abolish the military.

"The military is on its best behavior now, but that is because the American troops are here to make them behave," said one Lavalas leader, who spoke on condition he not be identified.

"We have to worry about what happens when the Americans leave," he said, "and many of us think the only way to prevent the Haitian army from turning back into an army of occupation is to get rid of it."

In recent years, nearly half of the Haitian government's budget has been devoted to military spending. With Father Aristide back in power, supporters argue, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has a rare opportunity to divert that money to education, health programs, job creation, communications and road construction.

That effort received foreign support this week when Oscar Arias Sanchez, a former president of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, came to the Haitian capital to urge Father Aristide and Parliament to free themselves from what he called Latin America's "main source of instability."

In a news conference at the National Palace with Father Aristide at his side, Mr. Arias said: "The Haitian people should not miss this opportunity to get rid of the armed forces, which since 1804" -- the year Haiti achieved independence -- "have been responsible for more than 24 coups."

"The Haitian Constitution is not like the Ten Commandments," Mr. Arias said. "It can be changed."

Father Aristide was smiling agreeably as Mr. Arias spoke, but when a Haitian reporter asked if he shared the views of his guest, the president turned enigmatic and dodged several versions of the question.

In the past, Father Aristide has said he favors reducing the size of the armed forces from its recent high of 7,700 members to 1,500 and separating the police from the army.

But he has emphasized reconciliation since he resumed power on Oct. 15 and diplomats say he is reluctant to take any steps that would further alienate soldiers and officers or encourage them to plot against him.

At the same time, though, the president has taken several steps to weaken the military.

On Nov. 17, Brig. Gen. Bernardin Poisson, who as head of the fire department for the last six years did little to distinguish himself, was appointed commander in chief of the armed forces.

The next day, a wholesale reshuffling of the high command, military staff and regional commanders was announced at the Army Day ceremonies.

American officials said Father Aristide had reassured them that he believed that the armed forces still had a place in Haitian life. But at the same time, as one American military official put it, there is "a mood in Haiti to have a loyal force but not a competent one," so as to limit the influence of the military.

American officials have repeatedly said that a slimmed-down and professionalized version of the armed forces has a role in a democratic Haiti.

Asked recently why a country that has no external enemies needs a standing army, Stanley Schrager, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, said such a force was an essential part of the "iconography" of nationhood.

Mr. Schrager also cited a need to patrol Haiti's extensive coastline and secure the land border with the Dominican Republic.

But an adviser to Father Aristide said he believed that the reasons for American opposition to abolishing the army went deeper. He suggested that Washington remained suspicious of the Lavalas movement, with its leftist roots, and saw the military as a valuable political counterweight.

"The army is the only institution the United States can control," the adviser argued. "They can finance them, arm them, have intelligence links with them."

Asked during a visit here last Friday to comment on Mr. Arias' effort, Togo D. West Jr., the U.S. Army secretary, said the issue was so delicate that it was best left in the hands of the Haitian government.

"Each country has to make that decision for itself," he said. "We're here to help restore democracy."

A bill separating the army and police is expected to be approved by Parliament before the end of the year, and other reform measures are expected to be introduced after next year's legislative elections.

But it is the possibility of a popular referendum that appears to be of most concern to the military and those who do not want to see it abolished.

"If this issue ever gets to a popular vote, it's going to be curtains for these jokers," one diplomat said.

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