More than three years into their mission in Haiti, United Nations peacekeepers say they have broken a wave of violence and crime across the Caribbean nation. Many Haitians say the U.N. force has improved security conditions but they also say opportunities for jobs and development still remain scarce. From Port-au-Prince, Carmen Gentile reports.
Every day, U.N. peacekeeping troops from Brazil patrol the streets of the most notorious slum in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. For more than three years, the troops have been building a presence in Cite Soleil in an effort to combat the violent gangs and criminal groups that operate in the vast shanty town.
U.N. troops have battled armed groups several times in Cite Soleil since they were deployed to the Caribbean nation after a revolt forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee in 2004. But a recent crackdown on armed groups still loyal to Aristide has helped bring order to the capital.
Street commerce has returned to the city. Children play in parks. And in slums once considered strictly gang territory, a sense of normalcy is emerging.
Edmond Mulet, who until last month was the U.N.'s Special Representative in Haiti, says crime is down since the crackdown earlier this year. "For the last three and a half months, we have not received one single shot, a single attack, nobody has fired at us. That proves the situation has changed in a very positive sense lately here."
Mulet says one key step to breaking the hold of criminal gangs was to stop talks between Haiti's government and powerful gang leaders about a possible deal to end violence. "They [gang leaders] wanted money, they wanted impunity, they wanted guarantees they would not be prosecuted for crimes they committed. They wanted passports, they wanted visas to go and live in the United States for example. All of those things were unacceptable."
In recent months, U.N. forces and Haitian police have arrested more than 600 alleged gang members, including many suspected leaders involved in kidnapping and murder.
But not all Haitians welcome the peacekeepers' efforts. Recently, dozens of protesters gathered outside the U.N. headquarters in Cite Soleil to denounce the heavy-handed response to crime. Haitian human rights groups have accused U.N. soldiers of killing several innocent civilians. U.N. officials deny this, saying they have not caused a single civilian casualty since the mission began in the spring of 2004.
Some Haitians also complain that little is being done to create jobs or spur development in what is the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Cite Soleil resident Samuel Jean Baptiste says the U.N. mission has brought improvements, but he says many people live in very difficult conditions. "We are fighting to stop the suffering, until now we have suffering. If the suffering does not stop we will keep fighting."
Others, like Haitian lawyer Osner Fevry, want the U.N. mission, or MINUSTAH, to leave the country immediately. Fevry calls the troops an illegal occupying force bent on keeping Haiti down. "Minustah is not a U.N. peace mission. It's a force of occupation. We must realize that is was demanded by the Haitian authorities. But the chaos was created by the same international community that has forced the Haitian authorities to demand the deployment in Haiti of this MINUSTAH."
However, Haitian President Rene Preval has praised efforts to improve order, saying security is crucial to the government's work of ending corruption and boosting the economy. Until Haiti rebuilds its own security forces, the government will continue to rely on U.N. forces and other international support.
Last month, Mr. Preval welcomed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who came to Haiti to view the work of the U.N. mission. Mr. Ban is asking U.N. members to agree to extend the mission for another year when its term expires on Oct. 15.