Brazil's Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti: Doing God's or Washington's Work?

Less than a week after the de facto February 29 coup d'état that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Brazilian government let it be known that it would send 1,100 troops to lead and provide the core units for MINUSTAH, the UN's international peacekeeping force in Haiti.

Brazilian troops arrived and assumed command of the force in June, relieving a U.S.-led multilateral force of 2,500 already in the country. On November 29, the UN Security Council announced that the MINUSTAH forces would extend their stay in Haiti until June 2006, with Brazil continuing to lead the force. Brazil's stated mission for its presence in Haiti is to support the decisions of the UN Security Council and aid the Haitian people. "It is natural for Brazil to be in Haiti," said a source within the Brazilian embassy. "There was no alternative to involvement [there]." However, a number of independent observers have been quick to claim that Lula da Silva's reasons for his country's presence are more self-centered than just maintaining regional peace or helping the Haitians, and more accurately stem from Brazil's desire to advance its position on the world stage, a project for which U.S. goodwill is essential.

Domestic Dissent.

In spite of its seemingly innocuous role as that of "peacekeeper," the MINUSTAH force has been criticized on a number of grounds. Some isolationist Brazilians feel that it is wrong for Lula to focus so much attention and resources on a foreign country when there are serious domestic problems which need to be addressed. Brazil has one of the worst income distributions in the world, with one fourth of the country's population living on earnings of less than two dollars a day. The gang wars and drug cartels in the urban slums known as favelas are barely containable and are only met with under-equipped and under-trained local police forces unable to deal with a problem of enormous magnitude. As a result, they often lapse into widespread human rights abuses against the poor or enter into complicity with the criminals they are supposed to oppose. Given the enormity of the problems facing their country, many Brazilians are somewhat resentful of the fact that Lula seems to have grown bored with helping his own people with their multiple problems, and moved farther afield.

As Haiti's present, deeply flawed government was not elected, but rather resulted from the overthrow of democratically-elected President Aristide at the behest of U.S. authorities, many Brazilians feel that, by authorizing a peacekeeping force to Haiti, the UN is implicitly condoning an illegitimate government that installed a thoroughly incompetent UN official, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, whose ineptitude is to the demonstrable detriment of the Haitian people.

Fundamentally, the case against Lula is that the Brazilian army is not in Haiti simply to support a peaceful resolution, but rather to help inculcate a post-Aristide society where Aristide's Lavalas political party could be disqualified from participating in next year's presidential balloting. The rationale behind this is that if Lavalas is allowed to run, it will almost certainly win by a landslide victory, something the U.S. is entirely against.

In fact, human rights and Haitian interest groups repeatedly have accused MINUSTAH for idly standing by as peaceful pro-Aristide demonstrators are shot by Haitian police (which also includes many members of the corrupt, disbanded Haitian military), or worse, by the intercession of MINUSTAH forces themselves on the side of the police. Highly regarded human rights attorney Brian Concannon has found that, "They're [the UN force] much more than negligently letting these things happen. They are playing an active role." Critics also have alleged that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has played a prejudicial role against Aristide's Lavalas party and collaborated in legitimizing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's scheme for forcing Aristide to flee to exile. Due to this and other factors, many Latin Americans view the MINSUTAH force in Haiti as a function of Annan's efforts to win Washington's goodwill, by echoing Powell's contention that Aristide fled Haiti because he could not win over the opposition, when, in fact, it was the opposition's fundamental policy not to speak to Aristide under any circumstances. Lula's critics now charge that Brazil is aspiring to become another Western Hemisphere superpower. He has been inundated with critical petitions and manifestos from his own Workers Party, one of which declared that, by sending troops to Haiti, Brazil was "reinforce[ing] the intention of George W. Bush's administration to impose an unlimited hegemony."

Lula and Washington at Odds.

Given the growing claims that Lula is in the United States pocket on some issues, his relationship with that country remains surprisingly touchy. In April of this year, Brazil became the first developing country to register and win a complaint against a first world nation in the World Trade Organization.

It did this by insisting and then proving that U.S. subsidies to cotton farmers unfairly gave an advantage to U.S. farmers against cotton producers in the rest of the hemisphere. A September 2003 free-trade summit in Cancún, Mexico, collapsed when a coalition of developing nations, led by Lula, protested against unfair trade restrictions on the part of industrialized nations, an action that sharply nettled Washington. Also grating to a Bush administration keenly aware of it friends and enemies, was its bitterness over Brazil's lack of sympathy when it came to the war in Iraq, with some Brazilian personalities even expressing their feelings that the attacks of September 11 could be considered a justified response to an abrasive and aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

Upon announcing that Brazil would stay in Haiti until the elections, Lula came forth with what some considered a lame defense of his actions, stating, "If we weren't there (in Haiti), U.S. troops would be doing what we would never do," suggesting that, if Brazil had not taken over the peacekeeping role in Haiti, the U.S. would be pursuing a militarized nation-building strategy similar to the one being pursued in Iraq. Lula previously had subtly criticized the U.S. when he described an August charity soccer match between Brazil and Haiti as, "a gesture meant to show the world that not everything should be done with cannons, machine guns or weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes a gesture of love is worth much more than certain wars we have been following through the world media."

A Change of Heart?

However, in spite of such bilateral conflicts, the U.S. and Brazil at times seem to have an effective working relationship. The U.S. failed to condemn Brazil after the latter refused to let weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency view its nuclear facilities, in spite of the fact that Washington has judged other countries such as North Korea and Iran very harshly for a comparable offense. "The United States understands that Brazil has no interest in a nuclear weapon, no desire and no plans, no programs, no intention of moving toward a nuclear weapon," were Powell's conciliatory words in an interview with Brazilian television. In October, deep in the middle of President Bush's re-election campaign, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the time to visit Brazil, bringing with him nothing but praise for its role in Haiti. "I take particular note of the tremendous work that is being performed by the Brazilian contingent in Haiti...They stepped forward and are playing an important leadership role in the hemisphere and I think what they did in Haiti demonstrates that," Powell said. Critics see this amicability on the subject of Haiti as proof of Lula's complicity with Washington in a scheme to oust Aristide from power. Supporters of Lula maintain that he is merely stepping forward to fulfill the mandate of the UN and maintain regional peace, a role that is not at all new for Brazil, which has a long history of working with the UN on peacekeeping missions.

Ulterior Motive.

Brazil, possessing the third largest country in the hemisphere in terms of land mass and the second largest in population, has long had a significantly more diminutive position on the world stage than its geopolitical status would merit. Lula seeks to bring his country to its rightful position as a world leader in both the Americas as well as internationally. Brazil is now serving a two year term as a temporary member of the United Nation's Security Council. The five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) have been on the Council since its inception in 1946. Regional powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa are in the process of soliciting the expansion of the Council's membership which would allow them to be awarded permanent seats based on their being the leaders in regions of the world now significantly underrepresented.

It is very possible that Brazil's involvement in Haiti is also an effort to project its capacity as an international player and to demonstrate that it has the qualifications to serve as a permanent Security Council member. The nature of the peacekeeping force that Brazil leads is in itself significant. Though it contains soldiers from countries as diverse as Nepal, Benin and Croatia, the clear majority of the peacekeepers come from Latin America. Thus, Brazil is not only showcasing itself as a international power, but perhaps even more importantly, as a country capable of leading and representing Latin America. Lula's strategy may be paying off: upon being asked on numerous occasions if the U.S would support Brazil in its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Powell has said that, though the U.S. would wait for the results of a panel of experts put together by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, "I would certainly think Brazil would be a solid candidate for such expanded membership."

Lula's greatest goal is not necessarily the salvation of Haiti, but the advancement of Brazil. In this project, he is proving himself the consummate politician, willing to use and also serve the U.S. and the UN when they suit his interests, and to dare6 to disregard them when they do not. Lula's actions could result in architecting the early stages of a new superpower, but only if he does not miscalculate the odds and therefore earn the skepticism of his own people, the ire of the United States and the growing chagrin of tens of millions of Latin Americans who genuinely believe that the Brazilian president is selling out Haiti for his own benefit.

[Source: This analysis was prepared by Anna Ioakimedes, COHA Research Associate., Council On Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, 06Dec04]

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small logoThis document has been published on 31Dec04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights.