We mustn't allow Haiti to slip back into chaos
We mustn't allow Haiti to slip back into chaos
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

We mustn't allow Haiti to slip back into chaos

When I visited Cite Soleil a year ago, I traveled in a U.N. peacekeeping personnel carrier and wore a blue bullet-proof vest and helmet. The metallic pings off the side of the armored vehicle apparently were bullets from the gangs who controlled the shantytown. Last week, I walked through the impoverished slum of 250,000 wearing a T-shirt and khakis, with no security, and chatted with local elected leaders and workers building roads, drains and basketball courts. Haiti has begun to build peace.

Barely into the second year of his second term as president, Rene Preval, supported by the United Nations, committed his administration to police and justice reform, and political reconciliation. The early results can be seen on Cite Soleil's streets and in the national penitentiary where some 700 gang members have been locked up during the past six months.

Now the challenge is to take advantage of this moment of peace by finding ways to offer the slum dwellers some of the permanent jobs that the Haitian private sector is reportedly creating. The United States, Canada and the United Nations are funding nongovernmental organizations to arrange public works programs to employ locals, but the jobs for each worker last only a week or two to allow as many families as possible to earn a little cash. More needs to be done.

While breaking up the gangs has been successful, it has also exacerbated an already overwhelmed and nearly dysfunctional justice and prison system. Most of the 3,000 prisoners in the penitentiary built for 400 are not tried or convicted. The hard-core gang members -- some charged with kidnapping, murder or drug trafficking -- are held alongside those charged with minor offenses.

A new pretrial prevention commission recently secured the release of some 250 prisoners who have been in jail longer than if they had been convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty. While a good first step, the commission needs to work faster, an emergency facility for minor offenders needs to be built, and the donors and the government need to quickly reach an agreement on building new prisons, renovating existing facilities and funding all the projects.

Establishing the rule of law in Haiti means more than training new police or vetting old ones. It also means cleaning up the judiciary in a country where political influence, intimidation and hard cash have made impunity the norm. Preval recently said that anti-corruption is a priority. Days later, his top prosecutor indicted and detained two members of a well-known elite Haitian family for allegedly lying about the value of their imported luxury SUV to avoid taxes. If that charge stands, it would severely shake the fortress of Haitian impunity and send shivers up the Port-au-Prince hills to other members of the elite who avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

There is even more good news. The Senate has just passed two critical justice reform bills that begin to require and enforce judicial standards. And Preval allowed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to put two helicopters in Haiti for six weeks to try to intercept cocaine flights from Venezuela and Colombia that use Haiti as a way station to the U.S. mainland. The flights virtually stopped. He also sanctioned joint raids by the DEA and the Haitian National Police, netting several traffickers, even if a major target, Guy Philippe, eluded capture.

However, the U.S. helicopters were prematurely and unwisely removed despite their success. Narcotics flights from the south have restarted, carrying the cocaine and cash that are the lifeblood of corruption when accompanied by weak state institutions. The United States could aid Haiti's recovery by keeping the DEA helicopters on hand to counter the cocaine flights to clandestine airstrips and by joining with Canada, Uruguay and Spain in providing boats and bases for Haiti's coast guard.

And potential instability is never far from the surface here. The Parliament sharply shifted allocations in the executive's supplemental budget proposal to benefit opposition-run ministries, and the lower House also took a slap at Preval by sacking the minister of culture, one of his closest collaborators. While Preval reacted with considerable equanimity, calling in key members of Parliament to forge a budget compromise, such opposition actions could start a new downward cycle of tit-for-tat political cuts that increase animosities, even to the point of bloodshed.

Haiti cannot be allowed to slip back into chaos once again. The international community needs to seize upon the new dawn of hope in Cite Soleil with extra effort and additional resources. Haiti deserves no less.

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