PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The United States 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 2004 revolt toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The modified embargo approved by the 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.
"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."
The move barred Haiti from buying guns from U.S. suppliers, but experts say the country is awash in thousands of firearms smuggled in illegally — many from the U.S.
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," said Joseph. "We thought that it was tying Haiti's hands behind its back while the bandits had all the heavy weapons."
But some Haitian lawmakers were not satisfied with the relaxed ban and called on Washington to fully remove the embargo.
"A legitimate government can acquire any type of weapon from any country," said Steven Benoit, a congressman from Preval's Lespwa party, on private Radio Metropole.
Benoit said the modified embargo only allows the purchase of small arms, not the high-powered weapons police say they need to combat gangs. U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment on the congressman's statement.
Benoit said Haiti could go elsewhere to get the guns it needs.
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 provides the only real security in Haiti, which has just 4,000 police for a population of 8 million. Experts say it needs at least 10 times that number.
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.