Haiti’s Army Is Making A Comeback 20 Years After Disbanding

…The past hangs over everything the new Haitian army is trying to do, and for good reason. The last time Haiti had an army, it participated in a series of brutal crackdowns and coups against the country’s democratically elected president.

Narrator Late last year, Haitian president Jovenel Moïse announced that his country, the poorest in the Caribbean, would build a brand-new army.

President Jovenel Moïse [translated from Haitian Creole] We’ll insist, so that all the Haitian people and the whole world can hear, the Haitian Army is not involved in politics and won’t be involved in politics.

Narrator That plan isn’t just an expensive one. It’s a total about-face from the decision more than twenty years ago to get rid of Haiti’s military entirely.

(00:41) You’re looking at pretty much all that exists of the new Haitian Army.

Capt. Louisin Dieudonné [translated] Correct the position of your rifles. Press on the hilt. Tight to the body
Narrator At this training ground in a former UN base, Captain Louisin Dieudonné is trying to get a couple hundred troops ready for National Flag Day, a celebration of Haitian independence.

Capt. Dieudonné [translated] Let’s go. Do these guys know their position?

Soldier [translated] That’s why I’m saying they haven’t ever performed at a ceremony before.

Josh Hersh, Vice News What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the army now?

Capt. Dieudonné The biggest challenge is always the budget. We need to build everything all over again.

Josh Hersh So all that takes money?

Capt. Dieudonné Exactly.

Josh Hersh And your guys have quite old weapons. Do they work?

Capt. Dieudonné Those are for the parade actually. That’s a World War I weapon. Yeah that’s…

Josh Hersh But at some point they’ll an actual modern weapon I think.

Capt. Dieudonné Yeah, modern. Correct.

Josh Hersh Do you talk to them about the old days?

Capt Dieudonné Yes, every time. Every time. Especially…

Josh Hersh What do you say?

Capt Dieudonné A lot of things. A lot of things, because they’re young. There are things that happened that they didn’t know. And I told them, a soldier has nothing to do with politics. Whenever you get messed with politics, you know, you’ll get killed.

Narrator The past hangs over everything the new Haitian army is trying to do, and for good reason. The last time Haiti had an army, it participated in a series of brutal crackdowns and coups against the country’s democratically elected president. In 1995, the U.S. and other countries oversaw the army’s disbanding. Replacing it with a national police force that’s heavily-funded and heavily-vetted by international partners. But now with the United Nations peacekeeping mission winding down, the government says it needs a military force of its own.

Minister of Defense Hervé Denis [translated] I’m putting a lot of pressure on the Prime Minister. Alright? Ok we’ll talk later.

Narrator Hervé Denis is the minister of defense. He’s in charge of building the army into an eventual force of 5,000 and selling it to a skeptical public and foreign partners.

Hervé Denis The enemies now have new faces. It’s not, you know, the traditional enemies that come to invade the country with guns and so on. So we said, we identified those enemies. We said their name are earthquake, and their name are contraband, and their name are poverty.

Josh Hersh Why do you need an army to do this? Don’t you already have a pretty strong police force?

Hervé Denis There is an emotional reason, maybe you won’t understand it, but for me and for the Haitian, this is an army that bring us to the independence. Make us a country.

Narrator Not everyone’s buying it. Mario Joseph is a human rights lawyer in Port-au-Prince.

Mario Joseph [translated] Cholera. Public freedoms.

Narrator For the past two decades he’s been fighting on behalf of the victims of one of the army’s worst atrocities: the 1994 massacre in Raboteau.

Josh Hersh You were the prosecutor team for Raboteau from the beginning.

Mario Joseph Yeah, from the beginning. We put the file on the court. We got this. This is the complaint of the victims. All the complaints we got.

Josh Hersh How many victims were there?

Mario Joseph Forty-two. Forty-two.

Narrator Eventually fifty-three people, including soldiers and paramilitaries were convicted for their role. But in 2005, the Haitian Supreme Court threw it out, citing errors in how they were tried.

Josh Hersh The government says this army is a new army; it’s totally different from the old army. Do you believe that?

Mario Joseph [translated] Listen, no, that’s not true. The [Haitian] government lies, lies, lies, lies. This is an army that was re-formed. That’s it. This is not a new army. It’s not new at the highest level.

Narrator He has a point. Haitian officials insist they’re turning the page. That the new army will be nothing like the old one. But when Minister Denis took Vice News on a tour of the army’s facilities, at the site of its original headquarters, there were a lot of familiar faces among the high command.

Minister Denis So this is the Chief of Staff. And then there’s Colonel Gabriel.

Narrator Colonel Jean-Robert Gabriel, an assistant Chief of Staff, was one of those originally convicted for his role in the command structure during the Raboteau Massacre in the case that was later thrown out. He and everyone else in the room were on American sanctions lists in the ’90s, part of a crackdown on Haiti’s military leaders. Ministry officials say they were all cleared of any human rights violations.

Minister Denis They have been out of the army. And then, after a vetting process, we get them back in the army, and they have to be wise. Thank you very much guys.

Josh Hersh Some of the people from that high command though were involved in the old army too. Doesn’t that send the wrong signal?

Minister Denis Sir, how could I create an army, you know, without people having the knowledge? So I understand, the people say, “Yeah, but they come from the old army.” But they have to come from somewhere. I can understand, you know. Some people, there’s some concern. But I said, “Watch us.” You will see that we are doing for the best, for the country.

Josh Hersh You’re confident?

Minister Denis Yeah, I am confident of that