Imperial hubris keeps Bob Rae blind to Haitian history

Bob Rae wants Canada to help re-establish a Haitian military with a brutal history. In making his case, Canada’s ambassador to the UN demonstrated his imperial ignorance and hubris.

Upon returning from a recent trip to Haiti Rae told CBC he was in favour of rebuilding that country’s army, which was disbanded in 1995. “For many years, the Haitian government said they didn’t want to have an army”, explained Rae. “But now if they want to have an army, fine, let’s talk about what Canada can do, what other countries can do to be of assistance in making those institutions work.” He added that “the reason it [Haitian military] has a bad reputation is because the Duvaliers used the army as their means of suppressing the population.”

To the best of my knowledge, Canadian officials have not previously expressed support for re-creating the Haitian military. At the infamous 2003 “Ottawa Initiative on Haiti” meeting where high-level US, French and Canadian officials discussed ousting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide they reportedly talked about re-creating the army. But the foreign powers didn’t follow through after aligning with a band of “rebels”, largely consisting of former military, to overthrow the elected government in 2004.

Instead, Canada assisted with integrating former soldiers into the police. Internal US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks note that upwards of a thousand former soldiers were integrated into the police force during the two-year coup government with the top echelons of the police hierarchy taken over by former army officers.

In 2012 Michel Martelly, who became president due to US and Canada intervening in an election, set up a Ministry of Defense and subsequently recruited 150 personnel to form an engineering corp. His successor Jovenel Moïse appointed a former Forces Armées d’Haïti (FADH) colonel interim commander in chief, boosted the military budget and sought to recruit 500 soldiers. But the FADH remains a fledgling institution.

Originally established during the US occupation of 1915–34, FADH was created to crush resistance to the US presence. The army, notes Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “never fought anyone but Haitians.” For the next three quarters of a century it would be used by Washington and the elite against Haiti’s poor.

In 1957 the military overthrew leftist president Daniel Fignolé. With Washington, Canada and Haiti’s wealthy arrayed against him, Fignolé was overthrown by the army 19 days after taking office. Soldiers broke into the presidential chambers to force Fignolé out of the country and when the slums of Port-au-Prince erupted in protest, soldiers sprayed the neighborhoods of La Saline and Bel Air with machine gun fire, killing as many as 500.

Trained by the US Army in Fort Leavenworth Kansas, General Antonio Thrasybule Kébreau took power. Kébreau supported Francois Duvalier who ‘won’ an election later that year. But, contrary to Rae’s simplistic depiction, the military was not Papa Doc’s principal or preferred tool of repression. Francois Duvalier created the Tonton Macoutes to terrorize the population but also to place a check on the military’s power to oust him, which is part of why Washington was hostile to Papa Doc at times.

After a popular revolt ousted Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in 1986 the military sought to bottle up the popular forces unleashed during the revolt. With US and Canadian backing, the military effectively ran the country during the four years after Duvalier’s fall.

In their bid to avoid relinquishing power to the popular forces that toppled the 29-year father-son dictatorship, the military staged an election and aborted another. Thousands were killed over the four years.

In 1990 Aristide won 67% of the vote to become president. Not quite eight months after he took office, Aristide was overthrown by the military. About 4,000 were killed during three years of military rule.

As part of the deal to return Aristide in 1994, the international force was to pare down the army from 7,000 to 1,500 members. While the US promised to allow the Haitian government to vet the military structure and release human rights abusers, they withheld information on rights violators and created a panel of Haitian army officers who decided which individuals were acceptable. In response, Aristide disbanded the army.

But, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, former military repeatedly attacked government installations and officials. In August 1996 a group of former soldiers shot at the Presidential Palace, parliament and police headquarters. They demanded the release of former colleagues who were detained and the resignation of René Préval who won the 1995 presidential election handily. Former military also represented the bulk of force that destabilized Aristide’s second government with repeated attacks from the Dominican Republic.

Rae knows little about Haiti and shouldn’t feel comfortable pontificating about its affairs. But his imperialist hubris allows him to feel comfortable doing so. (In a sign of the colonial mindset in Ottawa vis a vis Haiti the headline on the front of the Hill Times about Rae’s recent visit was “Handling Haiti”.) In another sign of Rae’s arrogance, he replied to a Haitian journalist’s question about Canada’s role in installing Martelly, who Ottawa recently sanctioned, by snapping, “how long has that idea been in your head?” In response the Jean Jacques Dessalines Twitter account noted, “The Canadian Ambassador to UN takes offense of Haiti journalist’s question regarding Canada’s role in the past of undermining democracy to Haiti. White supremacy is being offended when a victim points out your knee is on his back as cause of suffering while you blame the victim for being under your knee.”

Rae’s colonialist attitude is mixed with embarrassing ignorance. In arguing for the Haitian army, Canda’s ambassador to the UN told CBC, “name me a country around the world that doesn’t have an army.” In fact, about 20 countries don’t have an active military force. They are mostly small Caribbean or South Pacific island nations, but the list also includes Costa Rica, Iceland and Panama. Canada’s ambassador to the UN might learn something from the documentary “A Bold Peace: Costa Rica’s Path of Demilitarization”. That country successfully eliminated its military 70 years ago.

Ignorant imperialists should either educate themselves about Haiti or shut-up about that country. Unfortunately, Rae’s excessive pride about Canada as a force for good in the world, will keep him pontificating on a subject he knows far too little about.

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