HAITI: 20,000 US Troops Winning Hearts and Minds — Not

Posted on January 30, 2010



Today, I watched the video of last Thursday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing where Dr. Paul Farmer, formerly of Partners in Health and currently deputy to Bill Clinton as UN envoy to Haiti, casts aside everything he has ever thought, said and written about Haiti in order not to rock the congressional boat that wants to steer Haiti into a UN trusteeship.  Dr. Farmer is a terrific physician and among the people whom I trust most on Haiti issues.  I hope Dr. Farmer leaves his current post with the UN soon.  His voice is desperately needed outside — I fear if he stays at the UN, he will get swallowed whole.

Also today, I came across the following article that says 20,000 US troops are in Haiti!  Last I heard the figure was around 12,000.  The article goes on to explain that 6,000 troops are on the ground and the remaining 14,000 are on the 23 ships that are offshore.!  I suppose if the US is getting ready to take over the country, it’s wise to hide the majority of the troops on ships so that the coming occupation appears kinder and gentler than the usual.  And, this “kumbaya” article, no doubt drafted at the Pentagon, helps round out the picture that whatever the US troops do in Haiti, it’s A-OK with the people.  Not.

20,000 US troops winning friends in Haiti – but some say soldiers shouldn’t overstay welcome

By Ben Fox (CP) – 2 hours ago

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Young men gripping a steel fence along Port-au-Prince’s waterfront call out “Hi, Sir!” to two U.S. Army soldiers, pleading for jobs as translators, drivers, labourers.

None are getting any jobs today. But that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the U.S. military, which has a checkered history in Haiti that precedes its huge humanitarian mission after the Jan. 12 earthquake killed at least 150,000 people.

“The Americans are our friends,” said Jean Rony Doudou, a 28-year-old jobseeker. “They are here to help us.”

Many Haitians – at least for now – share that sentiment as they see U.S. troops bandaging the wounded, clearing debris, handing out food and water and even directing traffic. The soldiers are generating goodwill and are given a large degree of credit for keeping Haiti relatively peaceful during these worst of circumstances.

For the soldiers, Haiti is a welcome respite from dodging suicide bombers, snipers and roadside explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Here you don’t go in there with your war face,” said Sgt. Warren Bell from Hampton, Va., a paratrooper who did three tours in Iraq before handing out meals in Haiti. “You go in there with your peace face. You try and treat people like you would in the United States.”

“I want to help and do whatever it takes to get these people back on their feet,” he said.

“We want to show that face of compassion,” Capt. Clark Carpenter, a spokesman for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, said in Leogane, just west of the capital. “We’re here to help the Haitian people. We’re here to get relief to them as quickly as possible.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Billman, who deployed to Iraq in 2005, said the Haiti mission is more like what he was trained to do in the 1990s, before his work as a soldier shifted to fighting insurgents, and before images from Abu Ghraib tarnished the military’s image. Billman sees the Haiti mission as a way to change opinions.

“Now they see us helping others in a third-world country. They see us bringing food,” said Billman, 30, of Centerville, S.D. “They know there is a softer side.”

Billman, who now leads supply convoys from the airport to the paratroopers’ base at a country club in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, had to hop out recently to check on a truck that broke down. In Iraq, it would have exposed him to a possible ambush. Here, Haitians patted him on the back and thanked him for coming.

“It felt safe walking down the road. I wasn’t worried about some guy on a rooftop,” Billman said. “All they want is food and water from us.”

The Haiti effort could not be more multinational – with peacekeepers, rescue teams and medical volunteers from across the planet – but the U.S. presence is the most visible. There are more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel in and around Haiti – more than 6,000 on the ground, including Marines west of Port-au-Prince and an 82nd Airborne Division brigade in the city. The rest are aboard 23 Navy vessels, led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort has treated more than 3,000 patients since arriving Jan. 20.

The troops run orderly food distributions where there have been many warm encounters with Haitians.

Outside the destroyed Hotel Montana on Friday, a half dozen children, all living in a field since their homes were destroyed, stopped to greet U.S. soldiers guarding the front. The kids started doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and the soldiers joined in.

“They’re good. They dance really well,” said 12-year-old Samuel Petion.

His brother, 16-year-old Jethro, added: “They’ve come to do some good works here.”

Some Haitians even rate the Americans more highly than their own government, which, to be fair, lost many senior officials and virtually all of its important buildings in the earthquake.

“I hope the Americans stay forever so things can get better,” said 38-year-old Lenau Deschamps, an ice vendor who has camped out on a wooden pallet near the ruined National Palace since his house was destroyed. “We should keep the Americans and get rid of the Haitian government because it’s worthless.”

But many know the good feelings could come to an end.

For two decades in the early 20th century, the U.S. occupied the country – sometimes in brutal fashion. Later, it supported despotic rulers, including the notorious Duvalier dynasty. U.S. troops also helped return Bertrand Aristide, the fiery priest and president beloved by the poor who was ousted in a coup.

Some say that history is one reason to keep the American mission as short as possible.

“Our country is in a situation in which it needs help and we can’t manage on our own,” said Anne Doris Vital, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at the University of Haiti. “I appreciate having them here, but I don’t want this to turn into an occupation.”

Another student, 25-year-old Wesly Sagesse, agreed: “We are patriots and we only want to see American troops here until we can get back on our feet.”

For now, though, the U.S. forces are performing some badly needed functions.

A woman who was struck in the head Friday during a clash between looters and Haitian police in downtown Port-au-Prince was treated by Army medics and evacuated to the General Hospital in a Humvee. Soldiers carried her, apparently unconscious, to a canvas tent for treatment, and she was expected to recover.

U.S. soldiers also halted a violent confrontation Friday between looters and a private security guard who shot and killed a man inside an appliance store and appeared poised to shoot others. About a dozen members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division happened to be on patrol nearby and saw the commotion. They rushed up and quickly calmed the situation, shouting “Stop it!” and pulling guards off the captives.

Elsewhere, the military performs more mundane, but necessary tasks.

U.S. troops created three small artificial beaches in Port-au-Prince’s destroyed harbour so commercial ship containers can be offloaded and expedite the flow of aid. At the country club in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, troops are giving out water along with large bags of rice and beans.

On an oversized, olive-green bulldozer downtown, a soldier helps clear the debris from collapsed buildings. Men and women stare in fascination, some chatting with soldiers standing guard. Others wait eagerly for a chance to join the cleanup work and earn a little money.

“They could take over the country,” 19-year-old Nickinson Rene said with a laugh. “As long as they give us jobs.”

Associated Press writers Kevin Maurer, Ted Shaffrey and Michin in Port-au-Prince and Charles J. Hanley in Mexico City contributed to this report.