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Between stabilization and reconstruction: Latin America at Haiti’s side

David Morin


Photo: UN Photo/Sophia Paris
Major General Floriano Peixoto Vieira Neto (left), Force Commander of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and U.S. Army Lieutenant General Kenneth Keen (right), speak to the press in Cité Soleil, Haiti, where their troops are jointly distributing food and water.

Following the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, governments in Latin American countries have expressed solidarity with their “Caribbean sister” in many ways. In doing so, they have demonstrated not only their ongoing and growing involvement in the island over many years, but have reinforced the desire of some states, including Canada and Brazil, to adopt a hemisphere-wide approach to Haiti. While some see this as a confirmation of an unprecedented inter-American dynamic, events over recent weeks have also shown that in Haiti, Latin America is still far from speaking with one voice.

The presence of Latin America is notable within the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). In December 2009, there were military and police officers from at least 13 countries in the continent, making it the “first Latin American peace mission” under Chapter VII of the United Nations (UN) Charter. Since 2004, the military contribution from Latin American countries ranged between 40 and 60 per cent of the total number of UN peacekeepers deployed in Haiti. However, this commitment is quite unequally dispersed. Brazil and Uruguay provide more than half of the soldiers and, together with Argentina and Chile, these four countries represent 84 per cent of the total contingent of Latin American Blue Berets in Haiti. In response to the urgency following the earthquake, the UN Security Council’s resolution 1098 approved the addition of 3,500 peacekeepers for six months as part of MINUSTAH. The Brazilian parliament authorized the deployment of 900 additional soldiers while Argentina, Peru and Uruguay announced their intention to contribute to these reinforcements.

Most observers agree that Brazil is the key player and the engine driving Latin American involvement in Haiti. Brazilians held two of the most senior positions within MINUSTAH, namely Principal Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Force Commander, before the former, Luiz Carlos da Costa, lost his life in the earthquake. Brasilia is also politically active in Haiti and, to some extent, economically as illustrated by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s many visits to Port-au-Prince, the development projects under way and increased trade between the two countries. The Haitian file is a key component of Brazil’s will and strategy to assert its regional power status on the international scene, which sometimes aggravates its partners. Notwithstanding, Latin American countries have managed to establish a relatively coherent and co-ordinated dynamic within MINUSTAH and, at the political level, within the Organization of American States (OAS) and, particularly, the UN Security Council.

Beyond the stabilization mission, several countries in the region are also active in development aid. Aside from Brazil’s many initiatives, Venezuela —whose ties with Haiti are based on a powerful symbol as the young republic once provided refuge to Simon Bolivar, the hero of South America’s independence— has included the island nation in its global energy co-operation program. In addition, President Hugo Chávez has announced the cancellation of Haiti’s debt, which made Venezuela Haiti’s main bilateral lender according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Cuba has also been supporting the island nation with a voluntaristic policy that has brought nearly 2,000 Cuban doctors and nurses to Haiti and by granting scholarships to train Haitian students.

On the multilateral level, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is Haiti’s main lender and has been in the country now over the past 50 years. By the end of 2009, the IDB financed more than 25 programs, estimated at over US$770 million, mainly in the areas of infrastructure building, agriculture, essential services and economic governance.

In the wake of the earthquake, Latin American countries confirmed their aid commitment through various announcements. Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Venezuela were the first to respond. In response to the “Marshall Plan” slated to be discussed at the Montreal Ministerial Preparatory Conference on Jan. 25, 2010, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) quickly announced the same day a medium and long term “strategic plan” for humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Haiti, with health as the central focus. ALBA also seized the opportunity to denounce the “imperialism” of donor countries as well as the presence of foreign troops, particularly from the U.S. A few days later, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), created in 2008 with the implicit goal of replacing the OAS —seen as too subservient to the U.S.— committed US$300 million to support the reconstruction of Haiti. During this summit, UNASUR called particularly on member states to “establish a new form of South-South co-operation.”

After the critical comments made by some ALBA heads of state, the UNASUR summit provided an opportunity to tone things down and restore some harmony within the Latin American community. However, behind this facade, one must admit that the difference in tone and attitude between Chávez or Lula, for example, will surely provide ammunition to those who subscribe to the theory of the “two lefts.”

Beyond the rhetoric, this dissonance seems to reflect more profound divergences and interests that are hard to reconcile in Haiti. On the one hand, countries such as Venezuela, Cuba or Ecuador, which openly label themselves the socialist left, are in favour of a regional alternative that is rather contrary to the approach adopted by the key players in Haiti (e.g. Canada, U.S., France, IDB, IMF, World Bank, EU). On the other hand, the main contributors of soldiers, namely Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which only sent a low-level delegation to the UNASUR summit, are caught between the hammer and the anvil. Whenever they can, they certainly take care to reaffirm their commitment to a Latin American approach that is distinct from the one espoused by a segment of the international community. At the same time, it is difficult for them not to integrate the operational standards implemented by their main allies within MINUSTAH and the UN Security Council. Otherwise, they risk alienating two heavyweights: the United States and Canada. Under these conditions and beyond the powerful political symbolism that it sustains, it is difficult to believe that the reconstruction of Haiti could be the “laboratory” that will finally give rise to a Latin America speaking and acting with a single voice.blue square

David Morin is Deputy Director of the Francophone Research Network on Peace Operations (ROP) at Université de Montréal.

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