By Lee Hockstader September 22, 1994

On the last of many trips I made to Haiti, I sat down for a farewell chat at army headquarters with Col. Charles Andre. I often made it a point to drop by Andre’s cluttered little office when I was in Port-au-Prince. As a top staff aide to Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the colonel knew what the military was thinking, and he loved to talk. He also spoke fluent English, and with good reason: Andre had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, high in his class.

Andre was never shy about his opinions, no matter how offensive or off-the-wall he knew they would sound to an American. Often his soliloquies would devolve into barely coherent stream-of-consciousness, punctuated by uproarious laughter (his), especially when he fastened on to his favorite topics: the criminal regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed by the army in 1991, and the stupidity of the Haitian majority that still supported him. He didn’t seem to care what the media or anyone else in the United States thought, and in this way he was typical of the Haitian officer corps and the ruling elite generally. That summer day in 1992, the colonel was in rare form.

Lighting up a Salem, Andre set about explaining why Haiti’s army and police routinely beat the daylights out of poor, unarmed, cowed civilians.

“In the States they beat them up just like we do here sometimes — it’s just human behavior,” he said, alluding to the Rodney King case, which was then still prominent in the news. “The man in uniform, he’s just doing his job like the man in General Motors is doing his job.” Haitian police were just like American ones, he said, “maybe just at a different level.”

As I pressed him on the beatings, the torture, the mutilations, the murders and the random intimidation that were daily work for Haiti’s men in uniform, he warmed to his subject. Haitians of all classes have a habit of saying unflattering things about their countrymen, and Andre was no exception.

“We’ve been trying for many, many years to give an education to these animals that we call human beings,” he said. “Which sometimes in Haiti is like talking to a dog or a pig. Without the army, the whole place will be as a jungle — one person eating the other, just like in the jungle.”

That was the trouble with Americans — they just couldn’t understand Haiti, he said. Haiti was too poor to afford the luxury of what he called Aristide’s “extreme leftist government.”

“We’re fighting for our basic needs,” he said, starting to lose his thread. “This is an economic matter, it’s not a political matter. One person cannot meet all our needs. You’re a blanc, a white man, your economic situation is not too bad. I’m a colonel. My economic situation is not too bad. So we’re Macoutes! We must be killed!” And with this, he threw back his head and roared.

Andre and his military cohorts’ views come to mind this week, as many Americans are getting their first hard glimpse of the Haitian military in action. Americans tend to think of the bitter conflicts in poor little countries as too complex and full of gray areas to sort out. On arrival in Port-au-Prince this week, our troops were instructed not to intervene, as if it were impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Morally, they all look alike to us — this was the implicit message of the U.S. stance.

The violence in Port-au-Prince Tuesday, in which Haitian troops and police clubbed unarmed crowds rushing to welcome U.S. soldiers ashore and celebrate democracy’s supposed return was no different from many such incidents on the island in recent years. It was only better televised. Witnessing the spectacle of uniformed men beating the tar out of their countrymen may have shocked Americans, but it is old hat to poor Haitians.

For many years Haiti has offered one of the world’s clearest examples of class warfare. During this period, the Haitian military has been the instrument employed by the tiny upper class to maintain its grip on the far more numerous poor. The slim odds of such an arrangement lasting in perpetuity were brought home with force in the landslide victory of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. Badly frightened, the elite reacted by unleashing the raw force of its men in uniform and their cohorts.

If Tuesday’s trauma has an upside, it will be to clarify for the world exactly what the Haitian military has been up to these past few years. The problem is not Gen. Cedras and his two cronies in Haiti’s ruling triumvirate. It is an army stocked from top to bottom with Cedrases. No American training will reform them, no patrols by United Nations troops will make them rethink. Schooled in repression from the moment they donned uniforms, Haitian troops know no other mission.

Hard to believe? Just ask Col. Andre.

The writer was The Post’s bureau chief for Central America and the Caribbean from 1989 to 1992. He now reports from Moscow.0 Comments

Lee HockstaderLee Hockstader has been a member of The Post’s editorial board since 2004. He writes on a variety of subjects, including immigration, politics, voting rights, foreign affairs, and state and local issues in Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere.