Foreign Policy Blogs

Brazil's Opportunity in Haiti

When disaster struck in Haiti this week with a massive earthquake that devastated the capital, Brazil was given an opportunity to step up to the plate and show its international leadership.

Brazil's Opportunity in Haiti

In reality, Brazil has been working in Haiti for nearly five years, since June 2004. The Brazilian army heads the UN peacekeeping forces, as well as providing humanitarian aid. Brazil has around 1,300 troops on the island, and commands a total of  7,000 UN soldiers there. Since 2004, the Brazilian government has spent US$577 million on its mission. But it paid another price this week: during the earthquake, at least fourteen Brazilian soldiers were killed, as well as a famous Brazilian doctor and public health activist, known as Brazil’s Mother Theresa.

The Brazilian mission has not been without controversy. Prior to the earthquake, critics in Brazil claimed the Brazilian army would serve better in its own country dealing with domestic conflicts, and that the funding for the mission would be more appropriately spent on Brazilian soil. A soldier who served with the first set of troops sent to Haiti, Tailon Ruppenthal, wrote a scathing critique of the mission and the Brazilian army in his book Um soldado brasileiro em Haiti.

Critics also claim the mission is for public relations purposes, a ploy to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (which would be a huge stamp of legitimacy for foreign relations). After the earthquake, other critics, from political columnist Reinaldo Azevedo to pop singer Sandy, pointed out that the Brazilian government had made slower and more minimal efforts to aid mudslide and flood victims in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo earlier this month, compared to its immediate outpouring of support for Haiti.

Nevertheless, the Brazilian government continued its mission and ramped up efforts after the earthquake, promising US$15 million in aid, twelve tons of medical supplies, water, and equipment, and thirteen tons of food. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim flew to Port-au-Prince and met with Haiti’s president to discuss next steps and make recommendations to President Lula back in Brasilia. The Brazilian army has set up a field hospital to treat earthquake victims and is trying to fly in more supplies and personnel, which has been difficult because the Port-au-Prince airport has been incredibly chaotic. The Brazilian-led UN forces are working on recovery efforts to dig out collapsed buildings, including the former UN headquarters. Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim even called Secretary of State Clinton to request priority for Brazilian aircraft, and was given the green light.

[Even the private sector in Brazil has been encouraged by the Brazilian government’s lead. AmBev, the Brazilian subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch, has pledged 37,000 gallons of drinking water for Haiti, and McDonald’s Latin America will donate R$1 to recovery efforts for every Big Mac purchased through January 22nd. Brazil’s most famous model, Gisele Bundchen, announced a donation of US$1.5 million to the Red Cross. Major fundraising efforts are underway for various Brazil-based non-profits, including Viva Rio, which works in Port-au-Prince.]

However, eyewitness reports from Port-au-Prince indicate that after the earthquake, the UN forces have not served their role to protect Haitians. Haitians with Internet access reported seeing UN vehicles blocking the streets during the first twenty-four hours after the earthquake without making any efforts to rescue Haitians, and instead heading to sites specifically to aid foreigners. In addition, a group of Brazilian researchers working in Port-au-Prince claimed that in a conversation with one of the Brazilian UN soliders on Tuesday, the soldier declared that the real reason for Brazil’s five year mission was that Haiti served as Brazil’s “laboratory” to train the military to deal with favela uprisings in Brazilian cities.

Even when both sides of the issue are considered, it’s hard to deny that the U.S. military, which is sending around 10,000 troops to the island, may not be particularly welcome in Haiti despite the terrible crisis. The United States army occupied Haiti for nearly twenty years in the early 20th century, and was seen as the culprit in the coup d’etat in 2004. Brazil has had some success in reducing violence and gang activity, and now has considerable experience administering services in Haiti. It has the financial capacity to continue a long term commitment on the island, and the manpower to back up that commitment. This is Brazil’s big chance to get this right and come out the hero, and fully receive the recognition and clout it has been striving to achieve as an international player.



Rachel Glickhouse

Rachel Glickhouse attended the George Washington University, where she studied Latin American Studies and Spanish at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She spent two years living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after graduating in 2007. She now lives and works in New York.