President Michel Martelly’s plan to reinstate the armed forces has stirred a lot of controversy in the international community. On the surface, the debate is about the allocation of resources and the army’s history of human rights abuses. However, a deeper look at this issue reveals the true nature of the conflict, which is who calls the shots in Haiti. The international community has a history of using the threat of sanctions or reducing its aid packages to Haiti as a way of influencing government policy. It would be another blow to Haiti’s sovereignty if they manage to, once again, prevent the Haitian government from making its own decisions and doing what it feels is in the best interests of its constituents.
Since a document highlighting Martelly’s plan surfaced a few months ago, several foreign officials have publicly criticized the plan. Many suggested that such a plan is too costly ($95 million) and Haiti should, instead, focus on strengthening the National Police Force.
Some have even threatened to curtail their financial support for Haiti if aid money is used to finance the army.
Martelly’s initial response to this criticism was to assert that Haiti, as a sovereign nation, does not need permission from foreign countries to reinstate its army. He also revealed that the plan would cost significantly less than previous estimates and could be financed internally from revenue raised by the Haitian government.
However, Martelly’s tune seems to have changed as of late. On November 18, he was supposed to officially announce his plan but instead he called for a commission to evaluate its merits, leading many to think that he might be succumbing to international pressure or buying more time to negotiate a deal to secure funds.
Governments are expected to act in the best in- terest of its citizens. Unfortunately, in Haiti’s case more often than not, policy is dictated by the United States and other major donors who grant large sums of money to Haiti. These countries have also chosen to provide significant amount of aid through non governmental organizations (NGOs), as opposed to government projects. This practice has undermined the Haitian government, which has limited revenue, while boosting the power of NGOs. Today, the typi- cal Haitian has more hope of receiving assistance from NGOs and foreign governments than he or she does from the Haitian government. This was most apparent after the earthquake, when foreign governments and the United Nations were seen as the leaders of the rescue mission and not the Haitian government. It was common practice for people in the internally displaced camps to openly demand help from foreigners rather than from their own countrymen. We need to take steps to ensure that this never happens again by building an army to help citizens in crisis.
Ultimately, the blame for Haiti’s current state lies with its leaders. I am cautiously optimistic the current administration will be more effective in dealing with the international community. They have indicated that they would like to reverse the current pattern of dependency on foreign aid. They have publicly demanded that foreigners invest in the country instead of giving charity. They have also indicated that Haiti needs to regain its sovereignty. Haiti will not be sovereign as long as it draws the bulk of its budget from foreign aid. However, it can begin to define the terms of its relationship with donor countries.
Undoubtedly, reinstating the armed forces is a complex issue, as they do have a history of coup d’etats and human rights abuses. However, if we are to move forward as a nation we cannot allow ourselves to be shackled by our past. Instead we must believe and act on our potential for greatness. Haiti is a poor and dysfunctional country. It will remain that way as long as we are not in control of our own destiny.
The armed forces should never have been disbanded since the constitution explicitly calls for its existence. Reinstating it might be may be the most significant accomplishment of Michel Martelly’s young presidency to assert Haiti’s sovereignty.
Reginald Toussaint is an educator. He is also the person behind the blog Toussaint on Haiti, as a collection of responsible and respectful reporting on Haiti. In the summer of 2010 he began a philanthropic venture buying and selling fairly traded handicrafts from Haitian artists.