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Brazil Helps to Restore Order in Haiti

January 27th, 2010

Officially, Brazil is responsible for keeping order in earthquake-stricken Haiti, but the country’s soldiers — present for almost six years on the Caribbean island as the leaders of the UN peacekeeping force — are also helping with humanitarian relief. Behind the scenes, though, Washington and Brasilia are quietly competing for influence and power in Haiti.

On the fifth day after the earthquake, Yankee Charles, 30, raised an American flag above the ruins of his hut. The residents of the largest slum in Port-au-Prince had been without food and water for five days. They had wrapped their dead in towels and given them a hasty burial in a pit beside the road. “I thought help would come more quickly if I raised the American flag,” Charles says.

But no US Marines arrived in Cite Soleil, this impoverished neighborhood in the Haitian capital. Instead, a Brazilian military patrol belonging to MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission stationed in Haiti since 2004, showed up. “They asked why I’d raised an American flag, then they disappeared again,” Charles says. The next day, a UN truck driven by Brazilian soldiers delivered water and food.

Officially, the international community’s responsibilities in Haiti are clearly defined — the United States provides humanitarian aid, while MINUSTAH, under Brazilian direction, is responsible for public safety. Behind the scenes, though, Washington and Brasilia are vying for power and influence in the suffering Caribbean nation.

The Haiti mission is Brazil’s largest and most important foreign assignment in its history as a UN member. Brasilia has sent 1,300 soldiers to Haiti to date, and the force commander is Brazilian. In recent years, MINUSTAH fought the armed gangs that control Cite Soleil and Port-au-Prince’s other slums.

‘The Security Situation Hasn’t Gotten Worse Since the Earthquake’

Then the earthquake hit. Washington sent in Marines and American forces assumed control of the capital’s airport. The US is also conducting airdrops of food supplies into the country’s interior, providing a host of doctors, aid workers and experts — and it wants to rebuild the country’s presidential palace and other key buildings. Will it really stop short of patrolling the streets of Port-au-Prince as well?

The city’s prison collapsed in the earthquake and more than 3,000 inmates escaped, among them the leaders of several gangs. “We’ll recapture them,” promises Colonel João Batista Bernardes of the Brazilian MINUSTAH forces, “and, in any case, the security situation hasn’t gotten worse since the earthquake.” Haiti “doesn’t need American troops to maintain order,” concurs Brazilian Ambassador Igor Kipman, adding that his country now plans to double its UN troop presence.

Sergeant Márcio Andretti, 42, is on the front lines of Haiti’s battle for survival. Last week, the Brazilian soldier set out to escort a truck from the Brazilian military base to a central hospital six kilometers away. The hospital was without electricity, and the plan was to deliver a generator donated by the Dominican Republic.

Andretti arrived in Haiti the day before the earthquake. His wife and two children stayed behind in Rio de Janeiro. Deployed for six months, he was in his barracks when the quake hit. The base’s buildings are made of a special, flexible material manufactured in Italy. “They bent like rubber,” Andretti says.

Brazilian Earthquake Casualties

But His fellow soldiers at MINUSTAH headquarters in Petionville weren’t as lucky. Their building collapsed and 20 Brazilians were killed, including the mission’s deputy chief. The UN has set up a new temporary headquarters near the airport.

At around 9:30 a.m., Andretti’s convoy rolls through the gates of the Brazilian base. More than a hundred Haitians are waiting in front of the fence, begging for work, money or food. Andretti stands in the rear of a white Land Rover, the truck with the generator following behind, as they pass the ruins of a collapsed electronics store.

The street is packed with overflowing tap-taps — the country’s colorful shared taxi buses — as well as trucks and off-road vehicles with tinted windows. Andretti’s convoy grounds to a standstill in the traffic after just 200 meters (650 feet).

The reason is the US embassy, located on the same street as the Brazilian base. Hundreds of Haitians are lined up in front of the bunker-like building, many pulling suitcases containing their last remaining possessions. They want to depart for the United States.

Sergeant Andretti jumps from his vehicle and attempts to bring order to the chaos. Almost more than anything else, UN solders have been in demand as traffic police since the earthquake, as trucks filled with relief supplies choke the capital’s streets. Andretti has a go at clearing the traffic, sweat dripping onto his sunglasses. “Bon bagay!” amused bystanders cry, “Super!” but Andretti doesn’t react. Then someone shouts, “Ronaldo!” and the Brazilian laughs and returns the greeting. “We should get our national soccer team out here,” he suggests, “to help with the relief work.”

His convoy approaches Cite Soleil, a sea of huts made of cardboard, corrugated metal, and wood, with the turquoise water sparkling behind it. Fewer people died here than in the city center. Although many huts were destroyed, there were hardly any concrete buildings in the area.

The people in Cite Soleil are wading through garbage and sewage up to their knees. Women gather at a burst water pipe to collect water, chatting and laughing as a way to keep misery at bay. Children play soccer next to a collapsed school.

A Semblence of Normal Life Amidst the Dead

Gangs were once entrenched in Cite Soleil. They spent years exchanging fire with UN troops. The slums are now largely peaceful, but only since 2007. “We’re afraid they might return,” says Pierre Bachelet, as he waits for food distribution in Cite Soleil. Haiti has thousands of weapons in circulation and is an important transit country for cocaine.

The Land Rover continues on into “Hell’s Kitchen,” as Haitians call the market in the La Saline neighborhood that borders on Cite Soleil. A monstrous stench rises from the garbage heaps, while women sell vegetables nearby. A market hall here donated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez withstood the quake.

The convoy stops in front of the pile of rubble that was once the Haitian parliament building. Hundreds of Haitians are climbing on the ruins, picking anything still useable out of the debris. They use hammers and stones to pry steel from concrete, knowing metal is easy to sell.

As the Land Rover turns into the Bel-Air neighborhood, the intense odor of dead bodies permeates the air. Rescue teams search for people buried in the rubble of scores of collapsed buildings. But in the unscathed buildings, some semblence of normal life is returning. Generators hum, the first stores are opening their doors and street hawkers tout cards with cell phone minutes.

The hospital where the patrol finally arrives is partially collapsed and neighboring buildings are completely destroyed. A bulldozer pulls a wrecked car out of the rubble.

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