Hundreds vie to join Haiti's new army despite history of coups

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 19, 2017 1:07 PM

By Makini Brice

GRESSIER, Haiti (Reuters) - Hundreds of Haitians lined up in the blazing sun for a chance to join the country's newly formed military this week, looking past concerns about a lack of funding for the force and a history of bloody coups.

Young men motivated by scarce jobs in the Americas' poorest economy waited since early Monday morning at a base on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to be interviewed by recruiters.

Haiti has been without military forces since 1995, when former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the army after he returned to power following a coup and the national police became responsible for security. 

"The army that we build today will be a professional army that will protect our future, if the state takes it seriously," said John Felix, a 25-year-old from the southern city of Les Cayes, as he waited to enlist. 

The new army's job will be to patrol the seas and the border with the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispanola, and to help rebuild after natural disasters in a country that has suffered death and destruction from a catastrophic earthquake and a fierce hurricane in recent years.

Minister of Defense Herve Denis said the army would also fight terrorism and he envisions a force of around 500 compared to the 15,000-member police force. 

The military mounted dozens of coups in Haiti and its forces were accused of rampant human rights abuses.

Now, critics and activists complain the army could stretch the limited resources of a government that is already struggling to pay for education and health care.

"Haiti is not yet ready to reconstruct the army of Haiti. It's going to cost a lot of money," said Pierre Esperance, who heads Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network. 

"The authorities can't manage the national police, how are they going to manage a new force?" Esperance asked.

Former president Michel Martelly, whose term ended last year, and Jovenel Moise, who took power in February, both backed plans for the new army.

On Tuesday, potential recruits waited inside an air-conditioned room for officials to sift through their diplomas, photographs and identity documents.

Louicin Dieudonne, who leads the registration process, said more than 1,000 people had tried to enlist so far but many were too old or lacked the necessary education. Only 300 had made it through the first level of screening, he said. Recruits still face medical exams and psychological and intelligence tests.

"We have borders that aren't controlled at all. We have insecurity in the country, and unemployment too," said potential recruit, Whitman Francisque, 25. "I want to bring order to the country."

(Reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Michael O'Boyle and Grant McCool)