It is impossible not to be moved by the desperate scenes of death and destruction in Haiti. That such devastation should befall a country that has known nothing but hardship for decades tests the faith of even the truest of believers. And yet, out of the ashes, a phoenix may rise. For it is human nature to rally, come together and confront adversity. And as the nations of the western hemisphere scramble to provide aid and figure out how to co-operate in the reconstruction, the seeds of a new western unity may be planted.
Canada's response has been exemplary. The government wasted no time in delivering aid when and where it was needed, and our diplomats were quick to lead and convene a meeting to plan Haiti's reconstruction in Montreal next Monday. And Canadians have opened their hearts and wallets to help.
The news media have deployed considerable human and financial resources to bring the story home. Still, there are many layers and angles to this tragedy and, not surprisingly, some important stories have gone untold – mainly the contributions of Latin American countries and the history that lies behind their commitment.
The story of Haiti exemplifies much of the region's struggles. Like virtually all of the Caribbean and South American nations, it was a European colony. It was home to the first slave uprising in the Americas. The independence wars against France that ended in 1804 left the sugar industry in shambles and the country's coffers empty. It would take Haiti 100 years to pay France compensation for its colonial losses. Still, if development was slow, at least the country moved forward for a while.
The 1957 presidential election changed that, when François (Papa Doc) Duvalier won a landslide election and became a cruel despot. His reign of terror, which continued in the hands of his son, Baby Doc, until 1986, left a legacy of corruption, poverty, illiteracy and violence. It took years for democracy to arrive. When it did in 1990, with the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it didn't last long. Alternating democracy, military coups, uprisings, U.S. interference, economic sanctions and overall turmoil followed for the next decade and a half. It was a replay of earlier times in the history of many countries in Central and South America.
In 2004, faced with the violence and disintegration of a failed state in a critical geographic location, the United Nations Security Council created the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) to “ensure a secure and stable environment within which the constitutional and political process in Haiti could take place.” The leadership of the mission fell to another developing country in the region: Brazil. Other countries in the Americas also stepped up to the plate. Out of the 17 that contributed to the 7,000 military personnel that made up MINUSTAH's contingent, 11, including Canada and the U.S., were from the western hemisphere. With so much invested, the losses suffered this past week have touched every nation in the region.
Cuba immediately opened its airspace to U.S. aircraft delivering humanitarian aid – a move that shaves crucial travel time – and boosted the ranks of its medical personnel already in Haiti. Chile sent 40 tons of supplies in addition to a rescue and victim-identification team, joining the 564 military and 15 police personnel that make up Chile's contribution to MINUSTAH. Venezuela sent medicine and food, and President Hugo Chavez said his country would donate all the fuel Haiti might need starting with a shipment of 225,000 barrels of diesel and gasoline to be delivered to a refinery in neighbouring Dominican Republic.
Still, no other country has as much at stake in the success of Haiti's return to peace and prosperity as Brazil. Nearly 20 of its soldiers were killed in the quake. Luiz Carlos da Costa, the highest-ranking Brazilian in the UN and the second-in-command of MINUSTAH, and Zilda Arns, head of the Brazilian children's aid organization Pastoral da Criança, also died.
On a political level, Brazil's maturity – in sharing leadership – will be tested to the limit. In particular, after years of being the unrivalled leaders of the military forces securing the streets of Haiti, Brazilian commanders now have to co-ordinate with U.S. military forces, whose numbers, equipment and resources are likely to dwarf those of all other nations combined. After an awkward beginning, the two contingents have established a working plan, with Americans concentrating on humanitarian aid and Brazilians on security. In addition, MINUSTAH forces are using their local expertise to help the Americans deliver aid.
Impressively, all contrarian rumblings in the Americas have ceased. The only voices one hears are those calling for co-operation. The Brazilian news media reported that Barack Obama called President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to establish a direct communications line and to reiterate that Brazil is the Americans' most important partner in Haiti. Moreover, according to reports, the two leaders agreed that, in partnership with Canada and France, they would co-ordinate efforts to ensure the oversight of donations' allocation.
As relief efforts ease and the country is rebuilt, so, we hope, will be the relationships in the Americas, and it will not just be Haiti rising from the ashes but a reinvigorated western hemisphere.
Annette Hester is a research fellow with The Centre for International Governance Innovation at Waterloo, Ont., and lead author of the cigienergyblueprint.wordpress.com blog.