After a promising beginning that included, among other accomplishments, being the second country in the Americas to achieve independence and the first and only to do so after a slave revolt, Haiti’s prospects soured so precipitously that by the end of the millennium it was being dubbed the failed state of the Western Hemisphere.
Thus, one can hardly imagine a country that, even with the support of the international community, would take longer to bounce back from the catastrophic earthquake just witnessed on the island.
If in the past, Haiti has almost chronically relied on foreign aid and debt relief, the devastating ramifications of this natural disaster will demonstrably increase this dependency. Brazil, which in recent years has maintained a strong presence in Haiti, might prove to be a favored source of such aid.
For the past two decades, Brazil has been working to expand its voice in the hemisphere. Thus, it was only natural that when the United Nations decided to replace its decade-long stretch of failed Haitian initiatives with a newly formed stabilization mission, Brasília seized the opportunity.
Since 2004, Brazil has headed the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which mandates securing and stabilizing the environment, advancing the political process, as well as monitoring Haiti’s human rights situation.
The United Nations presence in Haiti dates back to 1993. Since then, the United Nations has undertaken four missions in Haiti: the United Nations Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), the United Nations Support Mission in Haiti (UNSMIH), the United Nations Transition Mission in Haiti (UNTMIH), and the United Nations Civilian Police Mission in Haiti (MIPONUH).
The situation worsened after the 2000 presidential election, in which reports indicate that turnout may have been as low as 10%. While Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party claimed victory, opposition members accused the government of manipulating the electoral environments in Aristide’s favor.
Internal political relations deteriorated, and in February 2004 vicious violence broke out. As insurgents increasingly took control of the northern part of the country, President Aristide was induced by his political foes to flee the island for exile in Africa.
In a bold move, the succeeding interim government requested international troops to be sent to Haiti to help to stabilize the country, and the Security Council promptly authorized a Multinational Interim Force (MIF) to be deployed there. This initial MIF was then replaced by the present multidimensional stabilization operation, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
Brazil’s willingness to get so involved with MINUSTAH was, at first, surprising. Holding one of the temporary seats in the Security Council during the 1990s, Brasília had not voted in favor of the peacekeeping operations in Haiti. But now, Brazil volunteered to lead the military part of the mission.
This took place after Brazilian officials made the argument that, unless there was a formal request from the Haitian President, sending a military force to Haiti would clearly violate the country’s sovereignty. This condition was not satisfied until 2004, when Haiti’s President Boniface Alexandre made the request.
Brazil’s determination to lead the mission indicates a noticeable change in its foreign policy orientation. Where Brasília had previously demonstrated some mistrust in multilateral organizations like the Security Council, suddenly there was a willingness to work within multilateral institutions in order to better establish Brazil’s growing relevance at the international level.
By hinting that its involvement in the MINUSTAH would serve as a measure of Brazil’s capacity and willingness to take on international responsibilities, Brazil’s Itamaraty would be taking on a risk. Now President Lula’s government hopes to parlay the putative success of the mission to justify its demand for a more prominent international role.
Brasília has been appropriately active in its rapid response in the aftermath of Haiti’s ongoing tragedy. President Lula increased Brazil’s official presence in the area almost immediately, by boosting its diplomatic staff in the adjoining Dominican Republic – taking advantage of its common border with Haiti – and sending the Minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim, to Port-au-Prince.
But even more relevant than such political moves, shortly after the disaster hit the island, the Lula administration announced a 10 million dollar contribution to humanitarian aid, a relatively high figure for the country. An air force plane with 13 tons of food and water was dispatched to Port-au-Prince, and another aircraft with 50 medical personnel and medicine is expected to take off soon.
However substantial Brazil’s initial response has been, it still is insufficient in the face of the unimaginable losses caused by the earthquake. The Red Cross has already estimated that up to 3 million of Haiti’s population of 9 million ultimately may have been profoundly affected by the earthquake.
Although the ongoing chaos makes it difficult to estimate the extent of the destruction, material damage to the island’s infrastructure can be expected to reach astronomical proportions, and the estimated toll of human loss, in the tens-of-thousands, already is massive.
In the face of such a raw tragedy, Brasília must show that it can not only talk the talk, but is also prepared to embrace a leadership role. Its readiness to rise to this challenge may be a signal of Brazil’s maturity as a regional leader, but this may also be far from sufficient.
It is the quality and consistency of support that will ultimately determine if Brazil, whose credentials are still waiting to be made, has the necessary dirt to throw behind the international status to which it so deeply aspires.
Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo is a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org. The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.