Hopes for Democracy Rest on Police: Forgotten Wars and Treaties - Haiti

Article excerpt

Haiti in 1995 has not yet declared itself. Is it a time of change, fresh possibilities, opportunities, precious second chances? Or a time of repetition, sameness, refusal to change, and clinging to old familiar ways? It clearly contains elements of both. The eyes of the world, and those of Haitians themselves, are watching and wondering, waiting to see which way Haiti will go.

The result is an atmosphere charged with anticipation--outward calm, but nervousness just below the surface. Questions fill the air. Will President Jean-Bertrand Aristide step down from office in February as the constitution says he must? Will the masses, who revere him as a messiah, allow him to? Will the right-wing elements who ruled during the military coup from 1991 to 1994 attempt another takeover? Will civil war break out between the members of the former army (now being dismantled under international supervision) and the supporters of Aristide, between the elite and the masses? Will the UN extend its mandate beyond the February 1996 deadline? Will "all hell break loose" once the UN forces pull out? Or will Haiti stumble along haltingly but doggedly on a slow, rough road to democracy as other countries have? Many questions but no answers.

Haiti has long been a country of extremes. Perhaps that is why so many expect an extreme response to the major events scheduled to happen here early in 1996. The country's history is defined by the outer limits: the most and the least, the best and the worst, the richest and the poorest.

Four hundred years ago, the French considered Haiti the most beautiful of all the Caribbean islands, the "Pearl of the Antilles." It became the most prosperous colony in the New World--and the most brutal. The Spanish wiped out the original Arawak inhabitants within fifty years; the French who took over from them found it more economical to work their African slaves to death and import more than to allow them to live and have children who would grow up and work. Haiti was also the first slave colony to gain independence as a sovereign nation, and the only one to achieve that status through a successful slave revolt. In this century it has become known for being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a tiny elite that has made its mark as the least caring for its country and the majority of its people.

Much about the way the country has operated since colonial days is still current. White privilege, for example, is alive and well in Haiti, something I had not expected to find in this fiercely proud black republic. My white skin earns me automatic deference and credibility. It marks me as a foreigner and therefore someone who has money, which in turn entitles me to power and privilege. And despite Papa Doc Duvalier's pro-black philosophy and policies, class divisions in Haiti still appear to coincide closely with colour divisions--white, mulatto, black. I make this assertion based on everyday observations of who rides in cars and who walks, who shops in the supermarket and who does not, who has others to fetch and carry for them and who fetches and carries.

Now the entire population is putting its faith in a new independent, civilian, professional police force, the cornerstone of Haiti's hopes for democracy. In the past, Haiti's "police" were members of the army and the dreaded paramilitary forces--Papa Doc's tontons macoutes and more recently the attaches. Far from respecting the law, these thugs created it according to their own whims. They were the law, and they ruled through fear and intimidation, using extortion, theft and torture as their tools.

The new Haitian National Police agents are young and have no previous military experience. About 5 per cent of them are women, presenting yet another brand new phenomenon in Haiti. They are well-intentioned and highly motivated. …