The earthquake that hit Haiti this Tuesday was one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent years, aggravated by the fact that Haiti wasn’t that good to begin with. A lot has already been said and written in the media and the blogosphere about it, so I’ll stick to just a few comments on the probable implications for two of the main players in the region: US and Brazil.
In Brazil, the earthquake will probably put a cap on the ongoing debate about exit strategies as an increase in military personnel will be necessary to provide relief in the short to medium-term. Also, though it is still impossible to fully assess the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake, it will certainly have lasting consequences for social stability, security and governance, undoing many of the achievements of the MINUSTAH in the past four years and making it impossible for Brazil to start withdrawing its troops as early as many were starting to predict these last few months. On the other hand, the death of 14 Brazilian soldiers and one high-level civilian official (by the latest available count) — the first deaths since the start of MINUSTAH in 2004 — could very well force Brazil to reconsider the risks and benefits of staying there once the situation cools down.
For the US, this comes as somewhat of an opportunity — as terrible as it may sound –, and one that the Obama administration seems to be seizing. The pledge to respond not only with aid in money and goods but also with as many as 3500 army troops (about half of the total contingent of MINUSTAH) and two thousand marines for what Secretary Clinton has called “long-term aid”, is not only a display of generosity and solidarity, but also a calculated move intended to curry goodwill among its Latin American neighbors. As Clinton has suggested, this “long-term aid” could extend to well beyond the needs of disaster relief and into the realm of peacekeeping and state/peacebuilding.
The danger here is that the move could be interpreted in a different light by the countries in the region. These countries, usually suspicious of the US — and remembering the fiasco of American intervention in Haiti in 1994 — could take issue with the sudden inflow of US troops in the country, even for such supposedly noble purpose. This is especially true for Brazil, who has led the military component of MINUSTAH since its inception in 2004 and has roughly 1200 soldiers deployed there. Though Brazil would probably be more than glad to share some of the burden, the prospect of being outshined by such a surge in US aid and troops would certainly cause consternation in Brasilia.