November 26, 2011

PRESIDENT MICHEL Martelly of Haiti has renewed his campaign promise to restore the nation’s army, which was abolished for good reasons 16 years ago. He’s set a Jan. 1 deadline for a commission to produce a blueprint for reestablishing a military force.

The army’s reconstruction is critical to reviving Haitian “dignity,” Mr. Martelly says. But we wonder what dignity is to be found in rehabilitating an institution whose activities in Haiti’s first free election, in 1990, included the following: massacres of peasants; violent attacks on the media; politically motivated murders carried out by individual soldiers; harassment of civic and political groups; and the failure to investigate abuses within its ranks. A year later, the army carried out a bloody coup d’etat — not for the first time.

For decades, the army was a source of intimidation, fear and brutality, an instrument of repression, not the force for security and stability that Mr. Martelly would have Haitians imagine. Naturally, the president says a reconstituted army would bear no resemblance to the one that ran roughshod. But it’s telling that in calling for a new army, he felt compelled to acknowledge the cruelty of the old one; as the president understands, the old army’s ghosts haven’t disappeared.

In a country suffering from massive unemployment, some Haitians see an army as a jobs program — even with a force numbering just 3,500, at least initially. Others regard it as a balm for national pride wounded by the presence of thousands of U.N. troops and police, who have patrolled the country since 1994.

Mr. Martelly insists an army is needed to secure the leaky border with the Dominican Republic, through which smugglers pass easily, and as a civil defense corps to respond to emergencies.

But those are tasks that the national police, 10,000 strong and set to double in size, could be trained to address. The country faces no external threat. The specter of “terrorists,” which Mr. Martelly mentioned, seems to exist in his imagination alone.

The United States and Haiti’s other major donors have been unequivocal in opposing a reconstituted army. That’s significant, since there is no other plausible source of funding for a force whose start-up cost, by various estimates, would be $25 million to $95 million.

Half the rubble from the January 2010 earthquake remains uncleared. Some 550,000 people remain in tent camps. A cholera epidemic has killed 6,700 Haitians. Hundreds of schools destroyed by the quake need to be rebuilt.

Does Mr. Martelly really believe it wise to spend tens of millions of dollars building military headquarters and bases, buying arms and uniforms, and training soldiers with no enemy to fight? Haiti has far more pressing needs.