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Understanding Haiti

Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State
Edited by Yasmine Shamsie and Andrew S. Thompson
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, April 2006, 148 pages, $29.95

Bandit, Heritage, Forward Action, Pivot, Cadence, Standard, Stable, Faucon, Constable, Complement, Humble, Halo and now the ongoing Hamlet – all denote Canadian military operations with missions affecting Haiti since the Berlin Wall fell. This litany of nicknames should persuade anyone remotely interested in Canadian defence and foreign policy to read carefully any recent books on that impoverished state.

Canadian troops, first on Operation Halo and subsequently, although in small numbers, on Operation Hamlet, have tread a well-worn and frustrating path in Haiti. At publication, over a 100 Canadian police officers are there, following in the footsteps of the more than 700 that have served in Haiti in the past decade.

The events that forced Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s departure into exile and have unfolded in the years since seem to confirm the pessimism of Robert Fatton’s 2002 book, Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.

Is there any hope for one of the world’s poorest countries? Fortunately, a conference convened in Waterloo in November 2005 discussed this very question. Papers from those deliberations have been complied by Wilfrid Laurier University Press into a timely and highly readable book Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State.

Ground rarely explored before, at least in these forums, makes the collection particularly valuable for anyone involved in anyway with Canada’s effort to make Haiti a better place to live.

The Haitian presence in Canada, now personified by Governor General Michaëlle Jean, and the role of this Diaspora is the subject of a paper by Carlo Dade of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, though it would seem more research is needed on the transference of ideas – particularly about concepts of justice, in addition to the remittance of money and contributions to private sector industrial start-ups.

Haitian economic models are explored in another paper illustrating the failure of attempts to create viable light industry as the engine for reversing the downward spiral into worsening rural poverty. Some specialist Canadian NGOs, ironically it seems to me, could play a greater role. For example, a Canadian NGO pioneering the provision of agricultural advice via Farm Radio does not operate in Haiti, land of an oral culture with an abundance of radio stations due to the extremely low literacy level.

A welcome and unique contribution is that of Jim Hodgson, the Caribbean/Central American coordinator for the United Church of Canada, whose remarks illustrate the diversity of views among those Haitians with whom the United Church partners with in its assistance programs. This is certainly ‘HUMINT’ of value to those without the necessary clearances to read what deputy ministers can.

Papers by Colonel Jacques Morneau, a former COS of the latest UN force in Haiti, and Robert Maquire of Trinity University, are relevant to anyone considering Haiti policies. The fact that the UN military force reports directly to the SRSG while the UN police force commander reports through a deputy is a change from practice in the 1990s when the UN police commissioner had equal status with his military counterpart. I wonder what the implications are. Unfortunately there are no papers on policing, justice or prisons. Hopefully this is not an indication of lack of interest on the part of the Solicitor General and Minister of Justice.

Readers wishing to redress this deficiency could consult Chief Inspector Beer’s article, ”The Multifaceted Role of International Policing,” in the August/September issue of Vanguard.

Coverage of MICIVIH is disappointing, however. Besides being a unique OAS/UN organization, in the 1990s it was headed by a diplomat of Ambassador status who, in a step unusual for official organizations at that time, reported human rights violations via the media – not official channels. Some assessment of whether Aristide’s human rights record changed after the MICIVIH was dissolved would have been useful.

Fatton, a professor at the University of Virginia of Haitian origin, also has a significant essay on Haiti’s current predicament, which is almost as pessimistic as his book. Suzy Castor, a Port-au-Prince-based professor, concludes this collection with a paper that again adds valuable, local ‘HUMINT’ insight.

For anyone seeking to understand Haiti, a country where millions of Canadian dollars are being spent and hundreds of Canadian soldiers, police and aid personnel are serving, this collection offers a timely read.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, served with UNMIH and UNSMIH.

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