Chilean soldiers in Haiti: A subject of debate

La Nación photo

[Two articles on Chilean participation in MINUSTAH, the United Nations mission in Haiti.  See related articles hereherehere, and here.]

Time to withdraw Chilean troops from Haiti

[Translation of a commentary from La Nación of Santiago, Chile, for November 28. See original here.]

by Raúl Sohr

The death of a Haitian citizen at the hands of a Chilean soldier last week in Cap Haïtien was the last straw. The soldiers had found themselves surrounded by a rock-throwing crowd.

In fact, several soldiers were injured by rocks. The agitation was a reaction to the people’s distress and helplessness in the face of the cholera epidemic that had already killed more than 1,400 people and infected almost 25,000.

Rumor had spread throughout the country that it was troops of the Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH), better known as the Blue Helmets, who had brought the disease.

Haitian President René Préval and MINUSTAH authorities blame agitators for the protests. They had been stirred up to create a climate of instability for the presidential elections to take place this Sunday.

But it would be naïve to believe that the supposed agitators managed to arouse thousands of people against the Blue Helmets through mere rumors.

As has happened in the past, what is happening now in Haiti is a rejection of the presence of foreign soldiers. It is this feeling toward what some consider forces of occupation that serves to foment mobilization against what is, in this case, a scapegoat.

Especially since the earthquake of January 12, the Haitian people deserve to get all possible aid .

But the presence of soldiers with combat weapons that end up being used against them suits no one. What is needed for maintaining order internally are police units with leadership training to deal with aggressive crowds.

Nor is it acceptable for the countries who send in their troops to have their presence made eternal, at great human and economic cost.

The cost of MINUSTAH during its first two years represents an expenditure of more than one billion dollars. During the same period, the Haitian government received something less than 300 million dollars in aid.

But now, the country needs, above all, at least a thousand nurses and a hundred doctors. Cuba has already sent 400 doctors.

In every military mission, offensive or humanitarian, it is necessary to have an exit strategy. It is essential to establish goals and a timetable for achieving them.

The Chile Battalion, consisting of 500 members of the army and the navy, has been in Haiti for more than six years.

There are no armed bands in the country that require a foreign force to prevent the ocurrence of hostile acts. As a consequence, there is no objective reason for that battalion to stay there, at such a high cost.

On the contrary, part of what has been budgeted should go to increase medical and educational aid and other services through the non-governmental organizations that are already there.

United Nations missions tend to lapse into a bureaucratic torpor guided by inertia.

So mandates to keep the Blue Helmets there can be prolonged for decades, contributing to aid fatigue in the international community. Haiti does not need the presence of a vast foreign military contingent.

Nor does it need its own army, as Préval has said. “I hear it said often that the army is good for development, for protecting the environment and for bringing about security. That is false… I prefer to spend the armed forces budget on health, education and the building of an infrastructure.”

It is time to withdraw the Chile Battalion and to follow Préval’s advice.


Why Chile should stay in Haiti

[Translation of a commentary from El Mostrador of Santiago, Chile, for December 1. See original here.]

by Jorge Heine
(Former ambassador to South Africa, professor of International Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario.)

Chile’s participation in MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, is again under discussion. Ever since March, 2004, when, in a notable demonstration of its ability to respond to a crisis, Chile sent 300 soldiers to Haiti in 72 hours in response to a UN Security Council resolution, until the present day, this has come up time and again.  The arguments vary, although the logic is not always obvious.

The current calls for withdrawing from Haiti were sparked by the participation of Chilean Blue Helmets in confrontations brought on by the cholera epidemic. This would indicate a preoccupation for the security of our troops. The opposite had been argued previously. Haiti was already pacified and therefore the presence of Chilean forces (like the rest of MINUSTAH) was needless. Others have said that Haiti is far away from Chile and that it has no relevance to our national security (although, curiously, Bosnia does have). This ignores the fact that peace operations (POs) do not respond to criteria of geographic proximity.

The obstinate facts are simple:

1) Haiti was and continues to be the poorest country on the continent. Its indices are those of the countries of Central Africa. Add to its poverty great political instability and institutional fragility, something made obvious by the difficulties in the presidential elections of November 28.

2) Many feel that Haiti runs the risk of falling in among the “failed states,” that is, of the ungoverned spaces of the Third World, where terrorist groups, drug traffickers and organized crime can flourish. The presence of MINUSTAH has prevented that.

3) Haiti is frequently the victim of natural disasters. In 2008, there were four      hurricanes, which left 800 dead and several cities, like Gonaïves, under water. Last  January 12 there was an earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and left 230,000 dead, the greatest disaster in the Americas in memory. The current cholera epidemic has caused 1,500 deaths.

With 600 troops, Chile has a considerable presence, which corresponds to the size and the foreign policy of our country. Taking part in POs is an international civic duty.

In these years, Haiti has advanced (for example, with high levels of growth in several years), but it is not yet ready to face its challenges without the collaboration of the international community. If the govnernment of Haiti asked for it, the UN would withdraw it mission. For good reasons, President René Préval has not done so, and neither will whoever his successor may be, at least not in the immediate future.

MINUSTAH, with 12,000 members, is the first PO with a majortiy of Latin American troops. That gives it a special significance. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru are part of it. Exercising leadership, Chile was the first country in the region to send troops in 2004. A Chilean, Juan Gabriel Valdés, was the first Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN, and head of the mission.
Another Chilean, General Eduardo Aldunate, was vice commander (and for a while interim commander) of the Blue Helmets. Both played key roles in facilitating the elections of February, 2006, which gave the country a democratic government.

Chile takes pride in its longstanding participation in UN observation and peace missions. The truth is that before MINUSTAH it was a very limited participation, rarely with more than 50 members. In the ‘90s, it often happened that countries with much smaller armed forces and much lower defense budgets, like Bolivia or Paraguay, supplied more troops than Chile to POs. That was unsustainable. In Haiti it changed. With 600 soldiers, Chile has a considerable participation corresponding to the size and the foreign policy of our country. Taking part in POs is an international civic duty. The notion that Chile, cited as an example of a southern country that has managed to prosper from globalization, can benefit from the new order without fullfilling its duties toward it does not work. Chilean foreign policy from the dawning of the 20th century to the present has been committed to international law and with multilateral organizations. In the more recent past, that has been the case, as with UNASUR, with South American and Latin American political cooperation.

In addition to being an instrument of foreign policy (for Brazil, which has the greatest number of soldiers in MINUSTAH, soon to reach 2,600, and the command of the Blue Helmets, it is a high priority), POs represent an opportunity for professional development of the armed forces. Since its founding, the Chilean armed forces had never taken part in a war. Doing so in brilliant form with its helicopter units in operations following the first gulf war in 1992 and ’93, was a valuable professional experience for our combat pilots. That cannot be replicated in any training at home. Something similar can be said of the presence of members of all our armed forces and police in Haiti.

After having led Latin American participation in Haiti in 2004 and having played such a prominent and honorable role, for Chile now to be the first country in the region to fold up and leave Haiti before being able to say “mission accomplished,” would deliver a very confusing signal to the region and to the world.