There appear to be some rising tensions between countries leading the relief efforts in Haiti. We know the US is sending in upwards of 10,000 troops to the country. But since 2004, Brazil’s military has been the commanding force leading the Haiti UN peacekeeping mission, technically referred to as MINUSTAH. Brazil has about 1,700 soldiers in Haiti and commands about another 5,300 UN forces in Haiti.
Nelson Jobim, Brazil’s defence minister, just came back from Haiti and made a point of saying Brazil would not voluntarily relinquish any of its command duties. Essentially, what he was saying was that Brazil, not the Pentagon, would continue to lead the UN forces.
When pressed, Jobim also admitted that the US military doesn’t take orders from foreign forces.
So who will answer to whom in Haiti?
There could be a brewing operational command power struggle. I don’t see Brazil backing down. They have long considered Haiti a critical part of their foreign policy and aren’t going to bow easily to the US military when it comes to commanding forces in Haiti during these critical times.
This earthquake is personal to Brazil. The country has lost 14 UN soldiers and four civilians thus far, not to mention Luiz Carlos da Costa, the number two UN diplomat in Haiti. Brasilia feels an obligation to be a leader from here on out, no matter how many boots the US puts on the ground.
Brazil — like the US, U.N., and France — is in Haiti for the long haul. Jobim said on Saturday that his country would have a major presence in Haiti for at least the next five years.
Brazil is not only shouldering a big part of the UN role in Haiti, but is also leading the humanitarian efforts, sending cargo planes loaded with supplies to Haiti as fast as they can be loaded. It is also taking aid from neighbouring Uruguay and Paraguay, as well as any other country that wants to donate but can’t handle the logistics on their own.
This, too, is a growing issue. Three Brazilian planes loaded with supplies were held up and not allowed to land in Haiti by the FAA (America’s agency that handles air traffic, which is now in control of airspace in Haiti). Amorim Celso, Brazil’s foreign minister, apparently was so upset about it that he put in a call to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and asked that Brazilian aeroplanes be given priority over chartered flights.
I imagine Brazilian commanders were thinking to themselves: “How dare the US hold up our planes – we run the UN forces in Haiti!”
With tens of thousands of people dead and millions in need of immediate help, it might be easy to pass this off as political/military rubbish that doesn’t matter.
But it does matter.
With a monumental task in front of them, and no serious Haiti security force available, Haiti’s law and order will rest in the hands of the US, the UN, Brazil, and maybe France for the foreseeable future.
Military folks usually don’t like to take orders from other countries. We all know this. But the bottom line is also this: There is a massive task ahead in the coming days, months, and years in Haiti. These command issues must be worked out at some point soon. Because in Haiti, a country on the precipice of absolute collapse, there is simply too much at stake.
Gabriel Elizondo has been reporting from Brazil for over three years both for television and the web. This article was first published in the Americas blog (sponsored by Al Jazeera) on 17 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.