A Uniquely Haitian Political & Security Puzzle

The volatile and often changing political and security situation in Haiti can sometimes seem like a three dimensional puzzle; very complicated and difficult to grasp because you can never quite figure out how the pieces fit together. Then, yesterday we learned that the army was exchanging gunfire with the police, but where did the army come from? Aren’t the police and the army on the same side? And how does the recent spate of gang kidnappings fit into this picture?

Let’s start with the police. Members of the Haitian National Police (PNH) began protesting last Monday over the right to unionize, along with concerns about low pay and bad working conditions. Before long social media was buzzing with videos of protesting officers discharging their weapons in the air and an under-construction Carnival viewing stand going up in flames. But as is so often the case, the full story is much more complicated and needs some historic context.
In September of 1994 a UN-authorized multinational force of 23,000 soldiers, the majority of whom were American, invaded Haiti to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The next year the President disbanded the army that had led the coup against him three years earlier. This also meant disbanding the national police force, because for the previous 192 years it had always been part of the military.
That multinational force was soon replaced by a UN operation that included a combination of military personnel and civilian police from outside the country. Over the next eight years there were a series of these UN deployments that varied in scale and mission, but which for the most part included helping to train Haiti’s new civilian police force.
In 2004 the UN significantly stepped up their presence with a large peacekeeping force known by the acronym MINUSTAH. Without going into their relative merits or issues, by 2012 MINUSTAH had grown to include 10,409 foreign troops and police. At that time it was the third largest of the 16 UN peacekeeping operations around the world, with an annual budget roughly half that of the government of Haiti. After 15 years and a gradually scaled down presence, MINUSTAH ended its operation in October of last year. And for most of those 15 years, part of its mission was to assist in training the civilian police force.
I mention this history because the roughly 15,000-member PNH, as constituted today, was established largely by foreigners. This is not to disparage the highly professional efforts of those foreigners, a number of whom were Canadians like myself. But it has to be said that while MINUSTAH received more than seven billion dollars during their tenure, the civilian police force they left behind has never had anything proportionate in terms of pay, equipment, healthcare, pensions and other social benefits. And now those Haitian officers are expected to do their own work as well as fill the void left by MINUSTAH’s withdrawal.
New on the scene is the Haitian army, and once again some history helps to explain how the puzzle pieces fit together.
The previous army was disbanded in 1995 and then, following his election in 2011, President Michel Martelly took the controversial first steps to reestablish the military. Part of the reasoning at the time was that a Haitian army would be needed to fill the security vacuum when MINUSTAH eventually left the country. Meanwhile the international donors that gave in excess of $7 billion to support MINUSTAH, which included training and equipping the PNH, said no to any funds going to support a new military.
In late 2017 President Jovenel Moïse officially remobilized the Armed Forces of Haiti (FADH), which subsequently began on-the-ground activities in August of last year with a contingent of less than 500 officers and soldiers. The stated task of FADH is to “participate in disaster relief operations and defend the national territory,” although they have not yet been enough of a presence to fill the MINUSTAH security gap.
With a caveat that the situation is still ongoing at this moment, what transpired yesterday began when President Moïse met with representatives of PNH on Saturday and offered certain concessions, but not yet a raise in pay. PNH officers and supportive members of the public then decided to march yesterday. This was partly to protest the previous day’s decision and partly to try and stop the first day of the annual three-day Carnival. The stated rationale for the latter was, “how can the country afford to pay for Carnival when they can’t pay their police officers and other employees, such as teachers.”
Here is what seems to have happened next. Some members of the FADH gathered at the Ministry of Defense, under whose jurisdiction they fall. On the grounds of the Ministry, which is across from the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, there was a temporary Carnival viewing stand (not far from the stand that was burned last Monday during the police protest). Security for this particular stand was provided by FADH officers, some of whom were deployed in a nearby tower with a view of the stand.
As off-duty PNH officers, including many in civilian clothes and accompanied by supporters, approached the area in protest-march formation, shots were fired in the air. Who fired first is still not clear, but FADH soldiers then fired shots towards the protesters from the tower. At that point all hell broke loose and both sides engaged in an exchange of gunfire for several hours. Initial reports are that one solider was killed and three police officers wounded. The government subsequently announced that Carnival was officially cancelled.
As of this morning, major road blocks have stopped all traffic entering or leaving the city. Throughout the day road blocks have been springing up inside city limits, and people are already comparing the situation to peyi lòk, last year’s national lockdown.
Now let me segue to the wave of kidnappings by armed gangs over the past couple of months, where once again there is more here than meets the eye.
In reality, many of the gangs in Haiti are proxy combatants for a small number of prominent figures from within the political parties–in government and the opposition–as well as a handful of powerful families who control segments of the economy. This is certainly not meant to denigrate the majority of upstanding politicians and prominent families, but there is no avoiding the inescapable truth of the situation. And rounding out this cadre of gang controllers are various players in the country’s illegal drug trade. But what is important to understand is that gangs are often like very dangerous chess pieces being controlled and moved around at will by others whose names are never known.
A case in point was last year when huge numbers of ordinary citizens took to the streets throughout Haiti to protest against the proposed increase in fuel prices and then on to the corruption exposed in the PetroCaribe scandal. As these legitimate rallies and public demonstrations gained momentum, they were increasingly hijacked by gangs who used guns and violence to put their own stamp on peyi lòk.
The majority of the gangs in question did not just spontaneously decide on this course of action. They were following orders from their controllers for whom the lockdown was part of their pro or anti-government strategy. As to how the lockdown could have simultaneously furthered the causes of these opposing forces, that is part of the mystery that is Haiti.
Left on the front lines to combat the gang kidnappings have been the police. The vast majority of officers reside in the marginalized and economically isolated communities where the gangs run rampant. And yes, there are some officers who are also members of gangs or co-conspirators with them. But they represent a very small minority that is not at all representative of the overall culture of the police force.
Over the next days and weeks we will see a reconfiguration of the battle lines between the police, the army, the government (which oversees both the police and the army), the gangs and their various controllers, and the general population.

As readers of this newsletter know, I am resolutely committed to planting trees and helping to rebuild the agricultural economy of Haiti, one rural community at a time. However, it is important to have a realistic roadmap of the political landscape in order to adjust and adapt along the way. It happens that this roadmap is, for the moment, being updated by the hour. But my commitment and ultimate goal remains intact.

Hugh Locke

Author: `