The Brazilian Army in Haiti – Foreign Intervention and Domestic Politics

The Brazilian Army in Haiti – Foreign Intervention and Domestic Politics

[Federico Neiburg is professor of anthropology at the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro and a member of the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. ]

In December 2019, a new scandal surfaced concerning the actions of military personnel from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) between 2004 and 2017: hundreds of Haitian children have been abandoned by their blue helmet fathers. The “children of minustah” joined a long list of evils of which MINUSTAH personnel have been accused. In addition to sexual crimes, the list includes summary executions and the excessive use of force against the poorest sectors of the Haitian population (especially in Port-au-Prince). It also includes the cholera epidemic that exponentially increased the devastating effects of the earthquake of January 12, 2010. According to an investigation conducted by the UN itself, Nepalese UN soldiers imported the bacteria hitherto non-existent in the Caribbean. Little or nothing had been done by the UN authorities to alleviate the suffering caused by the intervention and demands for reparation have never been met. At the political level too, MINUSTAH’s actions proved to be a resounding failure. After thirteen years of the UN mission, the Caribbean country remains in crisis: Congress and the executive are in conflict; the judiciary is adrift; corruption scandals are ongoing involving the management of oil, international humanitarian aid and the recently created free trade zones; and large demonstrations have taken place, prompting repression and violence, such as the protests against the rising food prices that led to the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. Moreover, Haiti is experiencing a food emergency that, according to the FAO, affects more than half the country’s population. All this Haiti was grappling with even before the impact of COVID 19 disease. One group has nonetheless emerged stronger from ongoing catastrophe in Haiti: military officials aligned with the current federal administration in Brazil. 

MINUSTAH deactivation in 2017 occurred in conjunction with a change in global geopolitics that has, in the years since that deactivation, repositioned some of the main actors vis-à-vis Haiti. The Trump administration limited its concerns over Haiti to controlling immigration. The UN has undergone a prolonged political and financial crisis. The South American countries that contributed military personnel to the MINUSTAH mission experienced sharp changes: shifts to the right, alignments with other countries, economic crises. The most notable case is Brazil. This is not only because it sent to Haiti the largest military contingent of any UN member state (more than 30,000 soldiers), or because it held command of the mission throughout its existence (in total, eleven Brazilian generals were in charge). It is also because of the effect that the military presence in the Caribbean country has had and continues to have on Brazilian politics. Involvement in MINUSTAH helped to legitimize the prominence of military figures in Brazil’s federal government and aided the turn to the far right experienced by the country since the rise to power of former army captain and current president Jair Messias Bolsonaro in January 2019.

Understanding how Brazil came to be such a significant player in MINUSTAH requires a brief look back over. After the coup d’état that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, Haiti was subject to a combined military intervention by the United States, France and Canada, comprising a Multinational Interim Force authorized by UN Security Council resolution. The Organization of American States (OAS), deployed in Haiti since 2002, was a possible successor to this Interim Force. However, Brazil along with other South American countries, pressed for the mission to be created by the UN, seeking greater independence from US interests. At that moment, Brazil, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aspired to greater prominence and autonomy as an international actor. It was calling for the formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNSASUR) and, along with other countries, refused to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) promoted by the US. Instead, Brazil pushed for the creation of an economic-commercial association between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). Brazil also renewed its campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Brazil had a long history of participation in UN military missions, but prior to MINUSTAH had never before exercised command of such a mission. As background, its lead role in Haiti is explained by the alliances that the administration of the Workers’ Party (pt) had struck with Brazilian companies in the process of expanding to new markets in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, and also by the party’s proximity to the armed forces, which were enjoyed a period of renewal during the first decade of the 21st century. In turn, the redesign of the control of land borders (which extend for approximately sixteen thousand kilometers) using massive new aerospace technologies and the internationalization of military careers through the UN contributed to Brazil leading the mission. Various Brazilian officials earned medals for their performance within the blue helmets. The Brazilian military implemented Military Operations in Urban Terrain (mout), as well as being deployed in rural areas. It helped to create new parameters for military stabilization in multipolar conflicts and a new wave of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, DDR, programs, first in the MINUSTAH, in Haiti, and later through command of the United Nations Organization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). The MONUSCO was explicitly conceived as a setting for a comprehensive “strategic reset” in UN military operations, aiming to defeat enemies that “may be mixed in with civilians”, using high technology devices such as drones, and to decrease blue helmet casualties. The most renowned of these officials was the Brazilian general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, MINUSTAH Force Commander between 2007 and 2009 and MONUSCO Force Commander between 2013 and 2015. Later, Santos Cruz, and other Brazilian officials with UN-supported career trajectories, placed themselves on the frontline in support of Bolsonaro, joining his teams of advisors and, subsequently, his cabinet. Their presence added a tint of legitimacy and professionalism to the government of the until-recently-obscure former captain.

From the outset, participation in MINUSTAH was a polemical issue in Brazil. The left accused Lula of submitting to American interests by becoming involved in the mission. The term “stabilization” was denounced as a euphemism for the normalization of the military coup and Aristide’s exile to South Africa, and for justifying the military occupation of the country and the indiscriminate opening of already vulnerable Haitian markets. For representatives of the right, pt’s foreign policy was described as “irresponsible,” aligned with the South American “populisms” then prevalent and also wasteful. Its critics denounced the expenditure of millions of dollars on international military campaigns, whose main objectives were domestic and unrealistic – like the ambition to reform the UN Security Council and occupy a permanent seat. At the same time, the controversies and rebuffs provoked by the military intervention among Haitian political forces and civil society organizations were never a matter of much interest to the UN or the Brazilian press.

In Brazil, however, the polemic intensified when the Haitian experience began to influence internal security issues. The first significant event occurred in 2010, with the military occupation of Complexo do Alemão, under the pretext of “pacifying” this enormous favela region in the north zone of Río de Janeiro, which was (and continues to be) a site of armed conflicts between drug-trafficking gangs and the police. Thereafter, use of the military to resolve domestic security questions intensified. In 2014, military forces intervened in Complexo da Maré, another extensive area of favelas in Rio. And four years later, military intervention was authorized in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which lasted until after the start of the Bolsonaro government.

The legal authority for armed forces to participate in domestic security issues (in so-called Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO) missions) derives from executive decrees issued under a 1999 law which in turn depended upon power afforded the military in Article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution. There have been dozens of such operations over recent decades to protect high-ranking officials and major international events, as well as to respond to crises in Brazilian states caused by police strikes. Nonetheless, the interventions in Rio de Janeiro had a special tone: aside from deploying thousands of troops, they were explicitly legitimized by the expertise supposedly acquired by the Brazilian armed forces in Haiti. Despite rebuttal of the idea by public security specialists, much of the press, the political class and officials claimed that the training received in Haiti’s popular districts, especially in Port-au-Prince, had served as a “laboratory” that would ensure the success of the intervention in Rio’s favelas. However, the failure of these actions was demonstrated by the continuing high levels of violence in the favelas. This acquired a dramatic public dimension after the assassination of councilor Marielle Franco, who had denounced the military intervention and the series of human rights violations caused by the military actions. Her murder remains shrouded in mystery, with rumors of a dark plot involving paramilitary groups linked to Bolsonaro and his sons (one a senator, another a deputy and another a councilor).

The political trajectory of the current president, who served in the national Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Brazil’s national congress) for three decades, was built precisely on these two fronts: at the periphery of the west zone of Rio de Janeiro city, an area where paramilitary militia groups are rife, and among the military personnel and security forces whose interests were defended by the former captain. Indeed Bolsonaro’s conversion to politics originated precisely from his expulsion from the army in 1988, after a military court found him guilty of “serious misdemeanor, indiscipline and disloyalty” for leading a movement demanding a wage rise and being involved in a bomb plot – later the Superior Military Tribunal overturned the sentence in a controversial decision.

Despite local protests against the participation of high-ranking armed forces officers in domestic security issues in Brazil, military voices began to be heard with increasing frequency in domestic policy. The turning point involved the officer who had been MINUSTAH’s first commander, General Augusto Heleno, was appointed military commander of Amazonia in 2007, soon after his return from Haiti. During his period of office, Heleno made some unusual public pronouncements. In a speech at the Military Club he opposed the demarcation of the huge Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, in the state of Roraima, a process initiated under the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government and approved by Lula in 2005, which originally provoked vehement reactions from landowners and military figures. His accusation against President Lula of jeopardizing national security, on the grounds that the reserve threatened national sovereignty in a border region, led to his removal from office in 2008. Later, Ribeiro would reveal himself to be a fervent anti-pt activist in front of audiences not only of military officers but also business leaders, Pentecostal churches and masonic lodges. He eventually became one of Bolsonaro’s main advisors during the final months of the presidential campaign, and subsequently one of his top ministers, since at the time of writing he holds the post of head of the president’s Security Cabinet.

Military opposition to the pt government also gained impetus in 2011 when President Dilma Rousseff – imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship – approved the creation of the National Truth Commission. The review of Brazil’s authoritarian past was seen by its military as a violation of the pact made in the transition to democracy. Opposition to this initiative helped to launch the military definitively into the political sphere and later bringing them closer to Bolsonaro. On the eve of the meeting of the Supreme Court that would declare Lula ineligible as a presidential candidate, at a time when he was clear favorite in the 2018 campaign, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, commander-in-chief of the army, threatened the judges on Twitter, explicitly throwing into question the continuation of democracy. Later, already president, Bolsonaro publicly thanked the general for his intervention without which, he said, “I would not be here now.” As he spoke, he was surrounded by his general staff, including various former commanders of MINUSTAH who had received high-ranking positions in his government, along with his running mate and now vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão.

Any formal inquiry into human rights violations committed by blue helmets in Haiti and on other UN missions depends on the design of a thus far non-existent legal regime. Ever since their creation in 1948, the blue helmets have remained in a legal limbo. Accountability mechanisms established by the UN to deal with harms caused by peacekeepers – in the form of local claims review boards and UN-appointed panels of experts – are ad hoc and self-judging. In the Haitian case, many denunciations of sexual crimes are still in process and remain controversial  — as those more publicized against Uruguayan soldiers, for which the country’s former president José Mujica apologized, or against members of the Sri Lanka contingent. A lawsuit initiated in New York in relation to the introduction and spread of cholera by UN personnel in Haiti was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

The effects on national political spaces of national involvement in UN military missions are complex and beyond the scope of this short essay to analyze fully. There appears to be just one element of the preceding pt administration’s foreign policy that the current government does not condemn: participation in un missions. MINUSTAH is emphatically defended. Heleno usually presents this aspect of his curriculum vitae as a credential legitimizing the post he occupies today in the highest echelon of the federal executive in Brazil. The internationalization and professionalization favored by the un – in the Congo, a Brazilian general command the largest force of blue helmets presently active – have converged towards what the anthropologist and specialist in military affairs Piero Leirner describs as a local scenario of the “hybrid war” taking place at global level. The circle of officers with a UN background that has so far become a protective shield for Bolsonaro in the crisis caused by the new coronavirus and an explicit support for his denialist policy – a policy that threatens to transform the COVID-19 pandemic into a health and social catastrophe of incommensurable dimensions. At a time when the democratic stability of the South American country seems to be seriously questioned, the politicization of these military officials, legitimized in their international career, has been transformed into a serious threat to democracy. In the new order that we hope will emerge from the current crisis, Brazil’s democratic forces will have to be finally able to discuss the place of the military in the country. This is something that was left pending with the end of the dictatorship in 1985, which none of the previous governments dared to review, and for which the South American country is paying an excessive price in the current drift towards a health and economic calamity, and towards authoritarianism.

I thank Fleur Johns for her careful reading and comments on a first version of this text.

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