*This op-ed was originally published on December 11, 2017*
Haiti’s got 99 problems but an army isn’t one.
Those of you familiar with Jay-Z’s version of that statement know that I’ve taken some liberty with it. So has Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, who recently unveiled a plan to reorganize Haiti’s military forces more than 20 years since it was unceremoniously disbanded.
Last month, Moïse named former army colonel Jodel Lesage as acting commander-in-chief, moving troops closer to full operation. The appointment still needs to be approved by Haiti’s Senate.
A few days later, Moïse welcomed the army’s anticipated return with a parade, featuring dozens of camouflaged soldiers toting rifles in the northern coastal city of Cap-Haïtien, calling on those present to recall the Battle of Vertiéres Haitians won against French colonialists exactly 214 years ago.
By reading the mission of this army—protect Haitian borders, fight terrorism, curb illegal trade and aid Haitians affected by natural disasters—it sounds more like a national guard unit than a mean fighting machine.
I hope that if they do go along with their plans, which I don’t support, they can remain faithful to the mission of a benevolent force and to be the first responders in a natural crisis, to which there are many. But unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that this army will be used for its intended purpose. I fear that we will revert to the Haitian army’s inglorious past.
I’m not sure if Moïse’s number crunchers are done with their analysis of the army’s cost to the nation. But what I’m certain of is that no matter what the price tag, Haiti cannot afford to maintain an army.
Disbanding the army was a controversial move, and many Haitians lament the loss of an institution they regarded as one of the few that allowed young men of lower socioeconomic class to climb up the ladder. Frankly, providing social mobility to the country’s majority black-skinned folks was the army’s only saving grace. Still, it is not enough to bring it back.
Haiti’s army was disbanded in 1995 by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, shortly after he returned to the country from exile in the United States. Former President of the United States Bill Clinton sent more than 20,000 US soldiers to bring back Aristide after the Haitian army organized a coup d’état in September of 1990.
That coup was the latest and last one organized by an army using a toad from the ruling elite to remove any government they deemed a threat to their hegemony. For a cost, high-ranked officers were more than willing to roll out their tanks in to the streets and oust any government deemed hostile to the interests of their benefactors.
The international community—particularly the United States—which was funding this army, decided it was no longer worth it and nudged Aristide to get rid of the army. After all, Haiti faced—and still faces—a myriad of issues like poor infrastructure, lack of adequate education, health care, and on and on.
Moïse may be wading into treacherous waters with his plans. Since unveiling his heavily tax-laden budget, there have been protests, almost daily, demanding his ouster, which signals his weakness as a president. Back then, his days would have been numbered because the military high command would have given the people their wish—for a price, of course.
There remains the question of the price tag. The plan to pay for the army has yet to be unveiled, along with the plan for reinstating the army. I supposed a great deal of that cost will come from some tax they will levy on the Diaspora, which sends more than $2 billion to relatives so they can eek out a living.
The Martelly administration imposed a tax of $1.50 on each money transfer sent to Haiti ostensibly to provide universal education in the country. He also extracted a fee on international phone calls to Haiti. This was done by executive order—against the constitution that states only the Parliament can pass taxes.
Martelly’s move remains controversial as few of the promised schools have been built, the country’s education system remains woefully inadequate, and as questions swirl about the use of said money.
Haiti has got to be the unluckiest country in the world, having been led by a coterie of miscreants and misguided leaders who always put self above country. They have failed, over and over, to provide steady and realistic leadership in order to get the country in the ranks of states that prioritize the rule of law and economic development.
Haiti needs to restore the glory of a country that was dubbed the “Pearl of the Antilles” and was richer than the 13 original colonies of the United States.
Unfortunately, the move to restore the country’s army is part of a consistent pattern of mismanagement and incompetence that has bedeviled Haiti.