Criminal violence in Haiti? Who is to blame?: Letters to Globe and Mail

See below for original text of 'In Haiti, violence amid the rubble', published in Globe and Mail, March 5, 2012

Montreal QC
March 6, 2012

Dear Globe and Mail Editor,

Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe (In Haiti, violence amid the rubble – March 5) mistakenly recommend stepping up repression to deal with violent crime in Haiti. MINUSTAH, the UN military force, is totally unsuited for police work and crime rates in Port-au-Prince are no higher than other large Latin American cities.

Muggah and Kolbe rightly call for the rebuilding of “a meaningful social contract, inclusive of poor and historically marginalized communities” as a long-term solution. But they fail to realize that beefing up MINUSTAH is not a precondition for social reform; it is a way of preventing it.

A decade of social reforms by Lavalas governments (1994-2004) provided the beginnings of such a social contract, only to be torn to shreds by the 2004 coup d’état. Since then, as Wikileaks has revealed, MINUSTAH has helped to contain the Lavalas movement and other "populist and anti-market economy political forces.”

Nikolas Barry-Shaw
Canada-Haiti Information Project
Author of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism (forthcoming from Fernwood Publishing, 2012)

Vancouver BC
March 7, 2012

Hello Globe and Mail Editor,

I am disappointed by the commentary on Haiti that you published in your edition of March 5, 2012 (In Haiti, violence amid the rubble’ – March 5). While the authors seemingly hint at the social and political roots of a rise in criminal violence, (“But the agonizingly slow place of reconstruction is taking its toll. Despite modest evidence of recovery, Port-au-Prince looks much as it did two years ago.”), their overriding message is the need for more law and order. They write, “Unless support for the national police is redoubled and United Nations peacekeepers scale up their efforts, the situation will rapidly unravel.”

There are several problems with the authors’ approach:
1. The authors’ description of the decline in ‘violence’ since 2007 is a distortion of the historical events surrounding it. The principle cause of pre-2007 ‘violence’ was the overthrow of elected government in February 2004, with all of its attending consequences. The perpetrators of that violence were the paramilitaries that overthrew the government and their backers in the halls of power in North America and Europe.

The Haitian police/UN Security Council regime that assumed the policing of the country in the aftermath of the coup of 2004 unleashed a wave of violence during the two years that followed in order to consolidate their illegal act. Once the protests against the 2004 coup began to be successfully contained, and following the staged election of February 2006, less ‘violence’ was needed by the coup’s perpetrators.

It is difficult to see how extending the mandate or legitimizing the presence of an illegal, coup d’etat regime and extending its mandate is any of prescription for social peace in Haiti. (Oddly, one of the authors of your published commentary was a co-author of a vital studyin September 2006 that documented the post-2004 regime of violence.)

2. The authors overlook the very grave humanitarian crisis confronting Haiti today and its consequences for social cohesion. Assuming the authors’ figures on a rise in social violence to be more than episodic, a major reason for its rise is the post-earthquake breakdown of social solidarity and cohesion normally so predominant in Haitian society (and which explain why criminal violence is so much lower in Haiti than elsewhere in the region). What is needed in response to these circumstances is probably not more and policing (though I leave that precise prescription to the experts) but more housing and shelter, schooling for children, better health care and gainful employment for adults, and a functioning democracy.

Doubly disappointing with the published commentary is your own newspaper’s shortcoming over the past year in reporting the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Haiti, examine its causes, including the performance of international aid, and promote informed comment about what, if anything, Canada could be doing differently for Haiti.

There is so much that needs to be told—why so little new housing is being constructed, what needs to be done to stay the cholera epidemic, why human rights and democratic, political governance are under threat, how can an agricultural economy be created, etc. Here your own prejudices come through, for if your newspaper is short on news and analysis of happenings in Haiti, it is not for lack of pleading on our part (and, no doubt, that of other Canadians) to do a better job.

Roger Annis

In Haiti, violence amid the rubble

By Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe, Globe and Mail, March 5, 2012
The danger signs are literally written on the wall. Many of Port-au-Prince’s graffiti-stained neighbourhoods are facing a dramatic escalation in homicidal violence. The surge in murder, property crime and assault began less than six months ago and is accelerating. There are genuine fears that the situation will deteriorate further. Unless support for the national police is redoubled and United Nations peacekeepers scale up their efforts, the situation will rapidly unravel.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The spike in violence should be offset against the remarkable gains in safety and security made since 2007. Early last year, Haiti’s homicide rate dropped to historic lows, on par with the global average at about 7 per 100,000 people and well below rates in nearby Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Even before the 2010 earthquake, poll after poll indicated growing confidence in Haiti’s reconstituted police force and public institutions.

But the agonizingly slow place of reconstruction is taking its toll. Despite modest evidence of recovery, Port-au-Prince looks much as it did two years ago. And since last year’s bitterly contested election, President Michel Martelly has yet to make good on his campaign promise of “building back better.” The abrupt resignation of prime minister Garry Conille last month confirms the administration is floundering.

With so little to show for the billions of aid dollars pledged, youths are growing restless. There are signs that some of the older neighbourhood self-defence groups – the bazes – are being overtaken by younger, less ideological, more predatory gangs. Many emerged after the earthquake and are showing less hesitancy to cross into competing neighbourhoods to assassinate enemies and prey on the vulnerable.

And the earthquake is still being felt far beyond the rubble-lined streets. The gradual decline of donor assistance is undermining community leadership and resulting in ever-more aggressive demands for youth employment. Garbage is strewn about the city and clean water is in short supply. And while stability operations led by the UN and non-governmental agencies such as Viva Rio have helped calm the situation in some neighbourhoods, these are losing steam.

Most of the violence appears concentrated in the capital’s so-called popular zones. Port-au-Prince’s homicide rate has shot up from below 10 per 100,000 in 2007 to more than 60 per 100,000 early this year. Household surveys we have been conducting since last August show that residents of lower-income areas are more than 20 times more likely than those living in wealthy areas to be victims of property crime. They are 27 times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 18 times more likely to be physically assaulted. Popular confidence in the national police is falling as residents complain of misconduct, including bribery and sexual harassment.

To overcome the crime problem, a professional national police force is essential. Haiti’s government must redouble its vetting and recruitment drive and ensure that officers are adequately monitored and rewarded for their service. Likewise, the UN and international donors need to encourage the political establishment to make good on its commitment to rebuild a meaningful social contract, inclusive of poor and historically marginalized communities. If it fails, the walls will almost surely come crashing down.

Dr. Robert Muggah is associated with the International Relations Institute in Rio de Janeiro and Canada’s International Development Research Centre. Athena Kolbe is affiliated with the University of Michigan School of Social Work and Enstiti Pou Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal in Petion-Ville, Haiti.