Article written by Ansel Herz
Even before the Haitian government authorized it, Washington began deploying 22,000 troops to Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, despite U.S. Embassy officials saying there was no serious security problem, according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables provided to Haïti Liberté by the media organization WikiLeaks.
Washington’s decision to send thousands of troops in response to the 7.0 earthquake that rocked the Haitian capital and surrounding areas drew sharp criticism from aid workers and government officials around the world. They criticized the militarized response to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis as inappropriate and counterproductive, claiming Haiti needed “gauze not guns.” French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet famously said that international aid efforts should be “about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also decried “Marines armed as if they were going to war,” in his weekly television address. “There is not a shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals, that is what the United States should send. They are occupying Haiti in an undercover manner.”
The earthquake-related cables show that Washington was very sensitive to international criticism of its response, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mobilized her diplomatic corps to ferret out “irresponsible journalism” worldwide and “take action” to “get the narrative right.”
Meanwhile, the UN in Haiti claimed its 9,000 occupation troops and policemen were sufficient to ensure security. On Jan. 19, with Resolution 1908, the UN Security Council unanimously approved sending more than 3,500 reinforcements to Haiti “to support the immediate recovery, reconstruction and stability efforts,” increasing MINUSTAH (UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti, as the occupation force is called) to 12,651.
But Obama administration officials said the additional U.S. troops were necessary.
“Until we can get ample supplies of food and water to people, there is a worry that in their desperation some will turn to violence,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters six days after the quake. “And we will work with the UN in trying to ensure that the security situation remains good.”
Seeking to avoid the appearance of a unilateral U.S. military action, the U.S. asked Préval to issue a joint communique with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Jan. 17.
Haiti “requests the United States to assist as needed in augmenting security,” said the communiqué, providing the rationale for what would be the third U.S. military intervention of Haiti in the last 20 years.
The revelations that US officials in Port-au-Prince did not believe there was, in fact, a security threat to justify a military intervention come in a trove of 1,918 cables made available to Haïti Liberté by WikiLeaks.
Deployment First, Authorization Later
After the quake, Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince resembled a warzone. Bodies lay strewn, collapsed buildings spilled into dust-filled streets, while Haitians frantically rushed to dig out survivors crying out from under hills of rubble. Several flattened neighborhoods looked as if they had been destroyed by bombing raids.
But the one element missing from this apocalyptic scene was an actual war or widespread violence. Instead, families sat down in the street, huddled around flickering candles with their belongings. Some wept, some sat in shell-shocked silence, while others sang prayers, wailing for Jesus Christ in Kreyòl, “Jezi!”
In the quake’s chaotic aftermath, Haitian President René Préval and his prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, were out of touch with U.S. government officials for about 24 hours. When they did connect, the Haitian leaders held a 3 p.m. meeting on Jan. 14 with U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, the Jamaican Prime Minister, the Brazilian and EU ambassadors, and UN officials.
President Préval laid out priorities: “Re-establish telephone communications; Clear the streets of debris and bodies; Provide food and water to the population; Bury cadavers; Treat the injured; Coordination” among groups amidst the catastrophic destruction, a Jan. 16, 2010 cable explains. Préval did not mention insecurity as a major concern. He did not ask for military troops.
But the same cable reports that “lead elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived today, with approximately 150 troops on the ground. More aircraft are expected to arrive tonight with troops and equipment.”
The U.S. government had already initiated the deployment of considerable military assets to Haiti, according to the secret State Department cables. At its peak, the U.S. military response included 22,000 soldiers — 7,000 based on land and the remainder operating aboard 58 aircraft and 15 nearby vessels, according to the Pentagon. The U.S. Coast Guard was also flying spotter aircraft along Haiti’s coast to intercept any refugees from the disaster.
A Jan. 14 cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to U.S. embassies and Pentagon commands worldwide said that the U.S. Embassy in Haiti “anticipates significant food shortages and looting in the affected areas.” But subsequent dispatches from Ambassador Merten in Haiti repeatedly describe only “sporadic” incidents of violence and looting.
In those early post-quake hours, it appears that Préval was reluctant to call in U.S. troops. A Jan. 19 cable reported that a “radio talk show host blasted President Préval on Signal FM on January 18 for hesitating to authorize the U.S. military to deploy.
But Washington wasn’t waiting for authorization apparently. In a Jan. 15 cable, Clinton told diplomatic posts and military commands that “approximately 4,000 U.S. military personnel will be in Haiti by January 16 and 10,000 personnel by January 18.” However, not until two days later, on Jan. 17, did Clinton and Préval issue the “joint communique” in which Haiti requested the U.S. “to assist as needed in augmenting security.”
Aware that there would be international dismay about U.S. troops playing a security role, Clinton outlined a series of “talking points” for diplomats and military officers in her Jan. 22 cable. She said they should emphasize that “MINUSTAH, has the primary international responsibility for security,” but that “in keeping with President Préval’s request to the United States for assistance to augment security, the U.S. is providing every possible support… and is in no way supplanting the UN’s role.”
UN Says It Should Provide Security
In the Jan. 18 meeting between Préval and international officials in Santo Domingo, former Guatemalan diplomat Edmund Mulet, MINUSTAH’s new chief, said that his troops “were capable of providing security” in the country. (Mulet had flown into Haiti on a Pentagon plane to take over from MINUSTAH chief Hédi Annabi, who was killed with 101 other UN personnel when the Hotel Christopher, which acted as UN headquarters, collapsed in the quake.) Mulet “insisted that MINUSTAH be in charge of all security in Haiti, with other foreign military forces limited to humanitarian relief operations.”
In fact, many Haitians looked on in disbelief as heavily armed UN soldiers, after rushing to rescue their own personnel, resumed driving through the devastated capital and its suburbs in armored troop carriers, bristling with the guns. Many Haitians have long resented and denounced the MINUSTAH as a flagrant violation of Haiti’s 1987 Constitution and an affront to Haitian sovereignty. The UN troops brandishing guns in front of devastated earthquake victims added insult to injury
Even before the earthquake, President Préval had called on the UN to change its mission from costly, mostly pointless, and sometimes repressive military patrols to building desperately needed infrastructure. “Turn your tanks into bulldozers” Préval pleaded in his 2006 inaugural speech. UN and U.S. officials repeatedly and dismissively rebuffed the request.
After the quake, Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim and Organization of American States (OAS) Representative to Haiti Ricardo Seitenfus echoed Préval’s call. Even Mexico “sought an unproductive debate on reviewing MINUSTAH’s mandate” at the UN Security Council, a proposal which was thankfully “avoided,” a Feb. 24, 2010 cable from the U.S. Mexican Embassy reported.
Even though the UN boosted its force, US troops in and around Haiti eventually outnumbered it by almost 2-to-1, and they remained for six months. Those troops poured into Haiti as U.S. officials fretted about the Haitian police force’s ability to reorganize itself and maintain order, the cables show. (At the same time, the cables reported no marked increase in violence.
But following her boss’ “talking points,” Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s Chief of Staff, “assured Préval… that the [U.S.] military was here for humanitarian relief and not as a security force,” explains a Jan. 19 cable.
But that’s not what journalists on the ground saw.
On Jan. 19, 2010, Democracy Now’s crew along with Haïti Liberté’s Kim Ives arrived at the General Hospital around 1 p.m., shortly after troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. There, they found the soldiers, guns in hand, standing behind the hospital’s closed main gate. The troops had orders to provide “security” by denying entrance to a crowd of hundreds, including injured earthquake victims and family members of patients bringing them food or medicine. “Watching the scene in front of the General Hospital yesterday said it all,” said Ives in a Democracy Now! interview the next day. “Here were people who were going in and out of the hospital bringing food to their loved ones in there or needing to go to the hospital, and there were a bunch of… U.S. 82nd Airborne soldiers in front yelling in English at this crowd. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were creating more chaos rather than diminishing it. It was a comedy, if it weren’t so tragic… They had no business being there.”
The journalists finally managed to get into the hospital and alerted the hospital’s interim director, Dr. Evan Lyon, about the problem. He immediately sent word down that the soldiers should stand down and open the gate. They did, but then assumed positions in the hospital’s driveway, continuing to act, among the injured hobbling into the hospital, as a completely unnecessary and unrequested “security force,” contrary to what Mills had promised Préval.
The entry point for much of the military personnel and equipment was the capital’s Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport. Timothy Schwartz, an anthropologist who has consulted for USAID, rushed into Port-au-Prince the day after the quake to help. “Ben and I are at the airport, on the tarmac, helping soldiers of the 82nd Airborne load thick, heavy metal plates into the back of my pickup truck,” he writes in a forthcoming book. “Then it occurs to me, ‘what the hell are these things?’”
“‘Body armor,’ Ben says.”
Schwartz reflected: “Fear must be the reason why all this military hardware and these soldiers around us are setting up base camp behind a ten foot fence. Fear must be why they are walking around in the near sweltering heat with 80 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies and machine guns swung over their shoulders.”
One doctor from Colorado who flew in with colleagues (at their own expense) on Jan. 17 to help the injured was shocked by the military deployment he saw at the airport. “We need gauze, not guns,” he told the Democracy Now crew.
The enormous influx of U.S. military personnel, weapons and equipment into the airport prompted a chorus of protest from mid-level French, Italian, and Brazilian officials, as well as the aid group Doctors Without Borders. They were outraged that planes carrying vital humanitarian supplies were prevented from landing, or delayed, sometimes for days.
“We had a whole freaking plane full of the friggin’ medicine!” Douglas Copp, an American rescue worker, exclaimed outside a UN base not long after the quake. The U.S. military, which had taken over the Port-au-Prince airport, would not give clearance for the Peruvian military plane to land. It had to divert to the Dominican capital, 150 miles away. “In Santo Domingo, we got a bus, and we came into Haiti with just the things we could fit in the bus,” he said.
Getting the Narrative “Right”
Secretary Clinton brooked no criticism, which was growing worldwide, of the U.S. military’s role in the relief effort.“I am deeply concerned by instances of inaccurate and unfavorable international media coverage of America’s role and intentions in Haiti,” she wrote in a stern Jan. 20 message to embassies across the globe. “It is imperative to get the narrative right over the long term.”
She asked that Embassies report back to her, “citing specific examples of irresponsible journalism in your host countries, and what action you have taken in response.”
In countries all over the world, from Luxembourg to Chile, diplomatic officials scrutinized the media and hit back against criticism of the U.S. military’s build-up in Haiti, sending back dozens of detailed reports.
For example, a Jan. 20 cable from Doha describes an Al Jazeera English report on the relief effort’s militarization which compared the US-run airport to a “mini-Green zone.” This report resulted in a phone call “during the early morning hours of January 18″ from the U.S. Embassy in Doha to Tony Burman, managing director of Al Jazeera English.
But the airport story was accurate. “They had taken over the place,” said Jeremy Dupin, 26, about the U.S. “joint coordination” of the airport. After his home had collapsed, Dupin, a Haitian journalist, had wandered the streets for a day until linking up with an Al Jazeera English crew to work as a producer.
“There were 20,000 soldiers so this was a big move,” Dupin said. “We pointed out there were serious problems, and that’s why the U.S. didn’t like the news, but we told the truth. And if we had to say it again, we would say it again… This wasn’t something we just said, it’s something we showed with images and footage. I mean, this was the truth.”
Many cables reported generally positive coverage in their countries. But any instance of negativity towards the United States, no matter how small, was flagged and dealt with. In Colombia, for example, “the only negative coverage” was from a newspaper cartoonist who drew “a colonial soldier planting a U.S. flag on the island of Haiti,” the Bogota Embassy reported on Jan. 26. “Post will meet with the cartoonist this week to discuss this cartoon with him and provide information refuting its inference, as well as engage with El Espectador’s editor to express our strong concerns.”
The Buenos Aires Embassy reported on Jan. 26 that the “pro-government, left-of-center Pagina 12 protests the excessive U.S. troop deployment, noting that ALBA (Bolivarian Partnership for the Americas) voiced its ‘concern over the excessive presence of foreign troops without any reason, purpose, venues or time of permanence,’ in veiled reference to the U.S. troops.
Factory Owners Demand “Security at All Levels”
Back in Haiti, Embassy officials worried that only 30-40% of the police were showing up for duty, while some 4,000 prisoners had escaped from the National Penitentiary. There were “numerous gang member/leaders” among the escapees, a Feb. 16 cable noted, but “many were not hardened criminals and were being held in lengthy pre-trial detention, never having been sentenced.”
“The security situation is worsening,” said a Jan. 18 cable issued just after midnight. “[E]scaped inmates have formed gangs to kidnap and perpetuate [sic] other crimes.”
Only nine hours later, however, another dispatch: “Embassy Port-au-Prince reports security is ‘pretty good,’ with ‘sporadic outbreaks’ of violence, despite news stories of a growing number of looters roaming the streets of Port-au-Prince and of gunfire and police using tear gas to disperse crowds.”
A Jan. 23 cable shows the situation unchanged: “Embassy Port-au-Prince reports the security situation on the ground remains relatively calm.”
Many news stories dishonestly described a sensational and imaginary eruption of violence in Haiti. “Gangs Rule Streets of Haiti,” CBS reported the day after the quake. On Jan. 19, CNN.com’s lead headline was “Security fears grow in Haiti’s tent cities,” and the caption below, “with 4,000 convicted criminals on the loose, nothing and no one is safe.”
But the U.S. Embassy was reporting the opposite. One Jan. 19 cable said that the “security situation in Haiti remains calm overall with no indications of mass migration towards North America.” Another Jan. 19 cable said: “Despite hardships in devastated neighborhoods, residents appear to be calm and civil, though isolated reports of roving armed gangs continue.” It continued: “Residents were residing in made-shift [sic] camps in available open areas, and they had not yet received any humanitarian supplies from relief organization. Nonetheless, the residents were civil, calm, polite, solemn and seemed to be well-organized while they were searching for belongings in the ruins of their homes. However, isolated reports continue of roving armed gangs engaged in looting and robbery.”
The U.S. moved aggressively to beef up the Haitian police (PNH), giving police chief Mario Andrésol “command and control advice and mentoring” from Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and FBI agents while trying to ensure that Haitian police officers were paid and well-equipped. The DEA advisor was Darrel Paskett, whose first post-quake priority was directing his “well-armed” bulletproof-vested DEA agents to guard the U.S. Embassy from “huge crowds” of desperate Haitians that might overrun it, FOX News reported. The crowds never materialized.
Before the end of the month, three separate State Department cables relayed that “Canadian Embassy contacts in Port-au-Prince report verbal orders were allegedly given by police leadership to shoot escaped prisoners on sight. UN Civilian Police officers close to prison authorities also heard unconfirmed reports of extra-judicial killings by police.”
The cables do not identify what action, if any, the PNH’s U.S. advisors took to investigate or stop the unlawful killings. Nor is there any mention of the numerous so-called “looters” in downtown Port-au-Prince’s rubble-filled commercial district who were shot on sight by the Haitian police, like 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, who grabbed some paintings from a collapsed structure.
Not surprisingly, Haitian business owners were the most worried about security, especially for their factories. Five days after the quake, Ambassador Merten met with representatives of Haiti’s business sector, who said “their major concern is security at all levels, to include security of goods, at marketplaces, and for ports of entry.” Later, they asked the UN occupation troops “to provide security for reopened factories, and pledged to re-open in weeks.” Embassy officers met again with Haitian business leaders one week later.
In a Jan. 26 cable, Merten commented that “apparel manufacturers in Haiti operate on a high volume, thin margin, low capitalization basis where cash flow is extremely important for the business to survive.” He relayed a factory owner’s suggestion for a $20 million loan to the sector. Days later, he applauded the introduction of legislation in the U.S. Senate “intended to provide short-term relief to Haiti’s apparel sector” by extending trade preferences.
Militarization of Humanitarian Aid
There is no doubt that the U.S. soldiers deployed to Haiti helped many earthquake victims. The 82nd Airborne Division helped set up one of the capital’s largest and best equipped IDP camps of over 35,000 with actor Sean Penn at the Pétionville Country Club, which was their operational base.
The Pentagon’s earthquake response also included one of the largest medical outreach efforts in history. Service men and women treated and evaluated thousands of Haitian patients, including more than 8,600 on the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort. Surgeons aboard the ship completed nearly 1,000 surgeries.
However, even more impressive results were obtained by Cuba’s 800 doctors in Haiti and the Henry Reeve Medical Brigade, a 1,500 member contingent of doctors from Cuba and many other nations who graduated from Cuba’s medical school. In the six months after the quake, according the Cuban Embassy in Haiti, the Brigade treated over 70,300 patients, performing over 2,500 operations, all without deploying soldiers or bringing in weapons. (Cuba’s medical missions are still in Haiti and remain a bulwark against cholera’s spread.)
In fact, there is a growing movement among aid groups worldwide, and even in the UN, against the militarization of humanitarian aid. The report entitled “Quick Impact, Quick Collapse: The Dangers of Militarized Aid in Afghanistan” by Actionaid, Oxfam International, and other NGOs could have been as easily written about Haiti, where the Pentagon’s “government in a box” strategy was being applied in late January 2010, when the study was released.
“As political pressures to ‘show results’ in troop contributing countries intensify, more and more assistance is being channelled through military actors to ‘win hearts and minds’ while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty… are being sidelined,” the report’s introduction reads. “Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable. There is little evidence this approach is generating stability…”
But no matter where one comes down on the question of the U.S. military’s role and contribution in post-quake Haiti, one thing is for sure. The massive troop deployment was set in motion before President Préval had given any green-light, putting him before a fait accompli which he had little choice but to go along with.
“It is certain that one important reason for the U.S. troop deployment to Haiti after the quake was to bar any revolutionary uprising that might have emerged due to the Haitian government’s near collapse,” said Haitian political activist Ray Laforest, a member of the International Support Haiti Network. “Also the perception of Haitians in Washington, since the time of its 1915 occupation, is that they are savage, undisciplined and violent. In fact, the 2010 earthquake proved the opposite: Haitians came together in an exemplary display of heroism, resilience and solidarity. Washington’s military response to the earthquake indicates how deeply it misunderstands, mistrusts and mistreats Haiti.”