GRESSIER, Haiti – Their heads held high and chests puffed out, a group of nearly 100 Haitian men in camouflage fatigues do jumping jacks or march around an abandoned U.N. compound on a recent morning. But after a few drills, they seek shelter from the blazing sun in the absence of anything else to do.
As U.N. military peacekeepers prepare for a full exit from this Caribbean nation, this small engineering corps is the first wave of Haiti's efforts to try and revive a military force some 22 years after a national army was disbanded. While Haiti is a long way off from having a real military, these initial efforts to build up a defense force at whatever level excites some and unnerves others.
"We're proud Haitians and we want to make the nation stronger," said Lt. Ted Tesnor Wolsby, a base commander in the brigade that has received months of military training in Ecuador but has only intermittent duties fixing irrigation ditches or roads back in Haiti for salaries starting at $318 a month.
While it's easy to find citizens who strongly support reconstituting a Haitian army, particularly jobless young people, the idea alarms those who vividly remember times darkened by military coups and oppression.
"It's not a good idea, that's for sure," said Bobby Duval, a former soccer star who was arrested by the army in 1976 and starved and tortured while locked up for 17 months for speaking out against human rights abuses under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's government.
Haitian leaders insist that a functioning defense force is urgently needed following a phased drawdown of all the remaining 2,370 U.N. military peacekeepers. The U.N. Security Council last week authorized an Oct. 15 wrap-up of a 13-year stabilization mission here, leaving behind a smaller peacekeeping operation for an initial period of six months comprising 1,275 police who will continue training Haitian law enforcers.
"We want a new armed force, an armed force oriented toward development. This is what we need," said Defense Minister Herve Denis, adding that the government is "very concerned" about a possible security vacuum after U.N. troops depart.
Attitudes about a possible military revival are as complicated as the history of Haiti, which only saw its first freely elected leader with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990, and he was ousted by a military coup just eight months later.
For much of Haiti's history, the army was used to crack down on political dissent for a parade of dictators or destabilize governments. When U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, they abolished the existing military and created a national guard, which eventually became the budget-draining Forces Armees d'Haiti.
During the 29-year family dynasty founded by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the army was largely shunted aside in favor of the Tonton Macoutes, the regime's dreaded private militia. But when his son, Jean-Claude, was ousted and fled to France in 1986, a repressive army high command of Duvalier appointees remained largely intact. After Aristide was ousted in a 1991 military coup, soldiers and paramilitary forces killed some 4,000 people over the next three years.
Haiti's current leaders are pitching new kinds of military duties: defending democracy, providing immediate assistance after natural disasters, and fighting smuggling of drugs and other contraband.
Reviving a national army has been a goal of the Tet Kale party since it gained power in 2011. From his start as a candidate in 2010 elections, Michel Martelly pledged to restore the armed forces, pitching a force of 3,500 troops. Shortly before his term as Haiti's president expired in February 2016, Martelly quietly issued a decree to reconstitute an army in the absence of a functioning Parliament.
Now, officials with President Jovenel Moise's government are pushing to have 500 troops next year. But they are providing only the broadest outlines of future plans to have armed troops monitoring coastlines and manning the border with the Dominican Republic.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born politics professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "The Roots of Haitian Despotism," said it would be difficult to imagine a military force that wouldn't quickly become politicized.
"There's the possibility that it becomes a weapon in the hands of whoever is the president or the prime minister. And there's a danger, obviously, that it might follow in the path of the previous military," Fatton said.
While many Haitians support a military rebirth regardless of questions about how the country will pay for it, it's hard to find any enthusiasm for the idea by international donors who have poured billions into bolstering the Haitian National Police, which has grown to over 14,000 trained members.
"Our efforts have focused on supporting a civilian police force that is focused on what Haiti needs, which is law enforcement," said Kenneth Merten, the U.S. State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, while emphasizing that the Caribbean country is a sovereign nation that can make its own decisions about what forces it wants in the territory.
The U.N. envoy for Haiti, Sandra Honore, told reporters Monday that the U.N. "is not in a position to support or to contribute to this plan of the government of Haiti."
But Senate President Youri Latortue, once an army lieutenant, says Haiti plans to engage in bilateral talks to try and convince troop-contributing countries to leave behind "equipment and helicopters so we can continue to reinforce this military after the U.N. departs."
Without disclosing any specifics, Haitian officials hint about upcoming support from some U.N. troop-contributing nations. But it's far from clear if anything significant will actually pan out.
Getting a professional and equipped military off the ground will require sustained international support, a fact well understood by authorities in the donor-dependent country.
"That is my call to the international community: Don't let us do the army alone," Denis said.
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