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A Coming of Age Moment for Haiti’s Neighbors

New America Media, News Analysis, Marcelo Ballvé Posted: Jan 30, 2010

For Haiti’s neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean, the quake aftermath poses something of an existential challenge.

The scale of Haiti’s need catches them at a crossroads: aspiring to greater influence in the international community, but still sorting through economic and political challenges of their own.

This week’s Montreal summit on Haiti aid was dominated by Latin American nations, although the United States, Canada, France, the European Union and Japan were also there.

But beyond basic deliveries of supplies, cash, and personnel, what will Latin America and the Caribbean contribute to Haiti’s mammoth reconstruction effort?

It is a coming-of-age moment for the region's countries, which are seeing their economic and political maturity tested by the disaster.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón said his country was prepared to assume more than a second-tier role. Speaking this week at an Acapulco pier, where Mexican Navy ships stacked with tons of supplies prepared to sail for Haiti, Calderón said Mexico’s logistical and economic resources were up to the task, fulfilling the country’s natural “geopolitical role.” He also urged Mexicans living in the United States to help.

At the same event, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said Mexico’s assistance would take the form of long-term housing and social development projects, including a temporary jobs program already getting off the ground in Haiti.

Alluding to a devastating 1985 earthquake that struck Mexico City, she added, “We have been in similar situations and have received help from all over the world.”

For the last few weeks, much of Mexico’s news media has been excitedly writing about the record amount of donations and supplies collected in the country of 110 million people.

But there have been dissonant notes struck. One Mexican commentator wrote that he suspected Mexicans’ generosity and commitment were skin-deep and would fade quickly.

How could Mexican society sustain a humanitarian program overseas, given its own shaky commitment to human rights and social empathy, asked Raymundo Riva Palacio, director of the EjeCentral online news portal. Riva cited two examples: Mexico’s cruel treatment of Central American migrants and petty criminals.

“As Mexicans we’re generous and we commit ourselves, but only ephemerally,” Riva wrote in his op-ed, published in influential Madrid newspaper El País, with an international edition that circulates throughout Latin America.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, despite his country’s deteriorating economy, forgave $295 million in unpaid oil debts, a huge weight off Haiti’s account books. Cuba sent more doctors.

But Chávez and his allies in Cuba and Bolivia attracted the most headlines for characterizing the United States military deployment to Haiti as an occupation force.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brushed off such criticisms as inappropriate and misplaced, and the Pentagon did seem the single hemispheric institution equipped to deal with the unprecedented scale of the disaster.

However, accusations of U.S. unilateralism will only grow as time passes if there is not more involvement by other countries in the region.

Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, has arguably already made the greatest recent sacrifice in Haiti of any nation. For some five years, Brazil’s contingent of over 1,250 peacekeepers has led the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as Minustah for its French acronym. A few months before the quake, Brazil estimated it had spent $380 million on Haiti peacekeeping, with only a fraction being repaid by the United Nations.

Other South American nations, including Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, also made significant contributions to Minustah. But Brazil lost the most lives in the quake: 19 members of its Minustah contingent died Jan. 12.

Brazil also lost Dr. Zilda Arns, 75, a beloved pediatrician and aid worker, who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was in Haiti working on issues affecting poor children.

At her funeral Jan. 15 in Brazil, Gilberto Carvalho, chief of staff to President Luiz Inacio da Silva, called Arns a “martyr” and said her death underlined Brazil’s obligation to live up to her example by “adopting” Haiti.

The Brazilian government’s post-earthquake aid to Haiti already totals $230 million, according to daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

And although Brazil has thanked the U.S. military for its 20,000 troops in Haiti to assist in relief, Brazil has not been shy about pressing for a continued leadership role of its own. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, when asked by reporters on Jan. 23 in Port-au-Prince if Haiti needed a Marshall Plan to resurrect itself, he replied, “Why not a Plan Lula?” using the nickname by which Brazil’s president is known.

Lula has made calls to Haitian President René Préval and U.S. President Barack Obama to coordinate humanitarian efforts, but also to reassert Minustah’s authority amid the flood of U.S. troops.
This week, Brazil announced it is doubling its Minustah contingent.

But even Brazil has encountered pushback as it mounts a response. Sandy, a hugely popular Brazilian 27-year-old singer, used her Twitter account to ask why Brazilians seemed so enthused to help Haiti when thousands of Brazilians affected by deadly mudslides and storms at year’s end had received little attention.

Her comment provoked an online backlash, and she retreated. But the dust-up reveals the mindset of scarcity and nationalism that poorer nations must contend with when participating in international aid operations.

Being poor didn’t stop small Caribbean nations from making contributions. Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for example, each sent Haiti $100,000.

But the Caribbean’s greatest contribution to Haiti’s reconstruction might be reminding the international community not to marginalize Haitians from the process.

Former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, who represented Caricom, the 15-member Caribbean community of states, at the Montreal summit, offered a word of warning. “Unless there is ownership by those directly affected,” he said in a speech, “the best laid plans will come to naught.”

Related Articles:

Poll of the Haitian Diaspora on the Earthquake

Haitians Need to Work With Diaspora to Rebuild Haiti

Saving Haiti, Saving Humanity

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