The Associated Press
Oct 10, 2006
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti The United States has partially lifted a 15-year-old arms embargo against Haiti, the U.S. Embassy said Tuesday, allowing the troubled Caribbean nation to buy weapons for police battling violent and often better armed street gangs.
The move comes after President Rene Preval’s new government openly criticized the embargo, saying it was hampering its ability to restore order and confront gangs that flourished after a February 2004 revolt toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The modified embargo approved by the U.S. State Department is aimed at helping Haitian and U.N. authorities “fight against rampant criminal and gang activity,” said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Shaila B. Manyam.
It allows the government to apply for licenses to buy firearms, body armor and other items for police, Manyam said. Private groups, companies and individuals are still restricted from buying arms under the embargo.
The policy change appears to underscore Washington’s vote of confidence in Preval, a soft-spoken champion of the poor who took office in May and has worked to reform the corruption-riddled police force while challenging gangsters to lay down their guns or face death.
“The United States government has taken note of the great changes in Haiti since the imposition of this embargo, namely a peaceful and democratically elected government,” Manyam said.
The United States imposed the embargo in 1991 when Aristide was overthrown the first time, barring sales of weapons except “in a case of exceptional or undue hardship, or when it is otherwise in the interest of the United States government.”
Aristide tried to have the ban lifted after 20,000 U.S. troops returned him to power in 1994 but was rebuffed by U.S. officials, who cited police ties to cocaine trafficking and the slaying of government opponents.
Haiti’s ambassador in Washington, Raymond Joseph, called the easing of the weapons ban a “welcome decision.”
“I think it will be quite helpful to Haiti’s police,” Joseph said, noting that the embargo was also criticized by the U.S.-backed interim government that replaced Aristide in 2004.
“We thought that it was tying Haiti’s hands behind its back while the bandits had all the heavy weapons,” Joseph added.
Steven Benoit, a congressman from Preval’s Lespwa party, said the modified embargo would even the playing field by allowing police to purchase high-powered weapons.
“Now police can buy the M-4 and M-16 rifles they need to work,” Benoit told private radio Vision2000.
Haiti’s capital fell into chaos after the 2004 revolt as well-armed pro-Aristide street gangs, former rebels and rogue police clashed almost daily, killing hundreds.
Since the revolt, U.S. and U.N. officials have been working to bolster a revamped police force. Gangs have been attacking police and U.N. peacekeepers with high-powered weapons.
An 8,800-strong U.N. peacekeeping force currently provides the only really security in Haiti, which has just 4,000 police for a population of 8 million. Experts say it needs at least 10 times that many.
In an exception to the embargo last year, the United States authorized two shipments of weapons for Haiti’s police but required they remain in U.S. custody and only be given to officers who were properly vetted