Head to toe blue tint camouflage, big black army boots, bright blue helmets, imitation designer sunglasses from the 90’s, and the ultimate fashion accessory to top it all off – automatic rifles.
It’s true that missionaries, aid workers, and short term visitors to Haiti make some silly and even sometimes offensive choices in what they wear and how they interact with this culture, but what’s the one thing that they’ve always got going for them? At least they’re not UN soldiers. Mission teamers might look tragically out of place in their safari gear, their peasant skirts, and their tie-dye, but they don’t stick out nearly as much as a truckload full of east Asian MINUSTAH driving through the streets in their full blown army gear looking like they’re ready for a battle to break out at any moment.
Good intentions covered in unfortunate fashion results in nonverbal communication that represents subtle cultural misunderstandings, but nothing’s near as offensive as an outfit that screams, “Hey, all you unruly savages – yeah, you, the ones carrying mangoes on your heads, and driving your mopeds around – if you all can’t get along with each other (which you’re obviously incapable of, that’s why we’re here) we’re gonna shoot ya! That’s right, we’re gonna shoot ya, and then you’re gonna like each other, like we do in Asia.”
The UN Peacekeeping forces (MINUSTAH) have been here since 2004, a time after a tumultuous decade of political problems when such a presence might have seemed necessary. 8 years later, they’re still here. And if you run into them and happen to ask why they’re here, they’ll answer, “security reasons.”
I usually run into them at the beach, the place most in need of security. And when I get their response to what they’re doing in the country I usually think to myself, “Thank God you’re here! I’m pretty sure Big Mama over there grilling the fish under the palm tree was about to start some guerrilla warfare with the guy selling the ugly wooden sculptures. And these pre-adolescent boys who were just here trying to sell me seashells are actually child soldiers who have been coerced into their anti-governmental underground army. I feel so much safer with you here.” But they’re holding guns, big ones, so I just keep my mouth shut and give them a slow nod, trying desperately not to let my face show them how disgusted I am that they are even there soaking up any of my Caribbean sunlight. Then they ask to take a photo with me, not with actual sentences but the same way the mission teamers ask to take photos with Haitian children, by holding up the camera and raising their eyebrows as high as they can while chirping, “Foto? Foto?” Because as long as Big Mama fish vendor hasn’t engaged in violent action yet, then they might as well take a photo with an American. I consider what kind of lecture I would give them on how culturally inappropriate their photo request is if they actually understood enough English for it to be effective, but alas, they don’t. And they still have big guns. So I just force an uncomfortable grin, the same kind I force when I eat rancid Haitian cow intestine and the cook asks me if I like it, and let them take the photo.
After 5 years here and not witnessing any positive concrete results of the UN’s presence here, this is what I’ve decided their purpose is here: to ride around in their oversized, air-conditioned vehicles (always at least two vehicles at a time because if something would break out, gotta have back up), and go to the beach to take pictures with Caucasians that happen to be there.
As I write this and look out the window of the Texaco where I’m typing, I see a young girl, maybe 4-years-old, in a white dress with pink flowers, struggling to get up into the pick-up where her father is. The gas station attendant, left his post, put down the large bag that he keeps his money in on the ground, and walked over to lift her up into the pick-up. Before he walks back to the pump, the little girl extended her arm to exchange a fist bump with the attendant, what Haitians call “kore”. It’s a symbol of support, appreciation, and friendship. The attendant smiles with the kore and returns to work. How on earth would this wild country ever survive without the UN peacekeepers?
What’s the appropriate alternative to prevent the country from falling into mass chaos? Tan khaki uniforms, no helmets, modern aviator sunglasses, a small handgun, and a Haitian flag patch on the shoulder. Sure, the Haitian police force may have its weak spots and obstacles to overcome, but with the right resources and training, they’re the ones that need to be responsible for their country’s peace. Currently the national police’s duties seem to amount to confiscating motorcycles without license plates and making sure the crowd stays off the soccer fields during matches. But if the UN quit claiming to be here to do the job that the Haitian police are supposed to do, then maybe security in the country wouldn’t be such a joke and would actually become something for Haitians to be proud of.
For further information on this issue, you can read this article. They are trying to work towards something different for the country. I hope that it happens sooner than later. I’d much rather take a photo on the beach with a Haitian police officer. At least then I’d feel like they were there to relax after having worked hard for their own country for real reasons all week long.