HAITI’S CATALOGUE of critical needs seems endless, all the more so since the crippling earthquake in January last year. But one item nowhere near the top of Haiti’s list of priorities, nor even remotely advisable, is reconstituting a national army. Unfortunately, President Michel Martelly wants to do just that.
Haiti’s army was disbanded in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and with good reason. Four years earlier, Mr. Aristide was just the latest of many Haitian leaders whose tenures were violently cut short by army officers or enlisted men; he abolished the army after being restored to power by the United States.
Whatever Mr. Aristide’s other merits or flaws, getting rid of the army counts as a signal achievement. For years, the army, in the absence of real external threats, had been primarily an instrument of repression and blood-curdling human rights abuses.
Mr. Martelly, a political novice who took office this year, has argued that a new Haitian army would bear no resemblance to the bad old one. He says a reconstituted force would be used mainly to respond to natural disasters and emergencies or to interdict contraband and drug transshipments.
It would be nice to believe that; it would also be naive. Mr. Martelly has extensive ties with right-wing groups, including allies of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose regime carried out atrocious abuses. With little support in parliament or from any organized political party, he finds himself perched perilously atop a political system that he has been unable to bend to his will. The temptation must be strong to follow the example of so many former Haitian leaders who found it convenient to fashion a band of loyalists into an armed force beholden to the president and hostile to his rivals — a far cry from what Haiti needs.
The start-up costs of establishing an army are estimated at $95 million — a huge sum in a country whose annual budget barely exceeds $1 billion. It’s not clear where the funds would come from; under no circumstances should the United States or other donor countries contribute.
That money could be put to much better use: fighting a cholera epidemic that has killed or sickened hundreds of thousands; removing rubble that still clogs entire neighborhoods; resettling thousands who remain without permanent homes; and rebuilding government ministries in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Haiti does have a crime problem; its 8,400-man police force is inadequate in a country of 9 million. It makes more sense for Mr. Martelly to beef up and professionalize the police than to revive an institution so closely identified with the violence, terror and repression that have plagued Haiti for years.