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LATIN AMERICA: From Peacekeeping to Humanitarian Relief in Haiti

Mario Osava*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 14 2010 (IPS) - Two planes from Brazil carrying 21 tons of food and water were to head to Haiti Thursday, as part of an air bridge to provide humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean island nation in the wake of the deadly earthquake that has claimed an untold number of lives.

U.N. peacekeeping troops from Brazil, Uruguay and other countries, meanwhile, are fully engaged in the rescue and relief effort.

The Brazilian air force plans to send six more planes with food as well as medicine, civil defence professionals, doctors and sniffer dogs. Brazil will also donate 15 million dollars to the humanitarian relief operations, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced.

Brazilian Defence Minister Nelson Jobim and military chiefs flew to Haiti Wednesday, accompanying the team of civil defence personnel, to assess the situation on the ground in order to help plan Brazil’s assistance to the victims of Tuesday’s quake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale.

The death toll for the disaster, which shattered the capital, Port-au-Prince, is feared to be above 100,000, while up to three million people in this deeply impoverished country of nine million are in need of aid.

The biggest contingent in the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is made up of the 1,250 troops from Brazil, which heads the mission that was created in 2004 and includes soldiers from 16 countries.

Latin America

The 1,162 troops from Uruguay are the second-largest force in MINUSTAH. The small South American country has also sent police officers to help train local police.

Although communication with Haiti was only possible by satellite phone, and then only sporadically, the Uruguayan administration of Tabaré Vázquez reported Tuesday night that all of the Uruguayan members of MINUSTAH were safe, and were taking part in the rescue and relief operations, along with the rest of the U.N. peacekeeping troops. The government is studying the type and volume of aid that it will dispatch to Haiti.

Mexico also sent its Tlatelolco International Rescue Brigade – nicknamed Los Topos, or “the Moles” – known for their expert volunteer rescue and recovery work at disasters around the world such as the 1986 earthquake in El Salvador, the 9/11 terror attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, and the December 2006 tsunami in Indonesia.

The Brigade emerged after the Sept. 19, 1985 quake that devastated Mexico City and claimed around 10,000 lives.

“We’re preparing our trip, seeing how to get to Haiti via the Dominican Republic (which occupies the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola; Haiti is in the west),” Omar Flores, one of the 15 volunteer Brigade members heading to the earthquake-stricken country, told IPS.

They will be joined by rescue workers from the United States, Bolivia and Peru.

In addition, Mexico’s Deputy Foreign Minister Salvador Beltrán announced that “a group of experts and consultants, along with medical specialists in injuries caused by collapsed buildings, search and rescue experts, damage assessment experts and experts in emergency administration” would be sent to Haiti.

On Wednesday, Venezuela sent an airplane with humanitarian aid – including doctors, water, medicine, fire fighters, and search and rescue and damage assessment experts – to Haiti.

Cuba said the 400 medical staff at its existing field hospitals in that country had treated hundreds of victims, while a medical brigade especially trained for disaster situations reached Haiti on Wednesday, carrying medicine and provisions.

Peru said it would send two planes carrying 50 tons of food and other humanitarian aid, as well as doctors, nurses and two field hospitals. Chile sent an aircraft with medical aid and food, while Colombia, Guatemala and Bolivia also pledged assistance.

Mourning Brazil’s Mother Teresa

At least 11 Brazilian, three Jordanian and one Argentine peacekeepers were killed, while dozens of U.N. workers were still unaccounted for.

Brazil is also mourning the death of Dr. Zilda Arns, a pediatrician who saved millions of Brazilians from malnutrition and infant mortality at the head of the Pastoral Care for Children, a Catholic Church-based foundation she created in 1983.

Arns, who was known as Brazil’s Mother Teresa and had been nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, was in Haiti as part of her work coordinating the Pastoral’s international efforts.

The Pastoral Care for Children, which has played a key role in significantly cutting Brazil’s infant mortality rate, provides assistance to over 1.9 million pregnant women and children under six and 1.4 million poor families in 4,063 of the country’s 5,560 municipalities, thanks to over 260,000 volunteer workers. The organisation’s working methods have been replicated in several countries.

Arns also founded the Pastoral Care for the Elderly in 2004, which has 14,000 volunteers so far.

The governments of the southern states of Paraná, where she lived, and São Paulo declared a three-day mourning period for Arns, the sister of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the archbishop of São Paulo who led direct campaigns against Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Brazilians are doing “a great job” in Haiti, Haitian agronomist André Yves Cribb remarked to IPS. Cribb has been living in Brazil since 1992, when he first came to study and then stayed on with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), while also taking part in missions in his home country.

A Brazilian NGO, Viva Rio, has also been working hard in the slums of Port- au-Prince, initially involved in efforts to alleviate water shortages by helping local residents build rainwater collection tanks – an initiative that first took off in Brazil’s semi-arid impoverished northeast, said Cribb.

But the overall aim is to “reduce social tensions,” he added, explaining that the Viva Rio project has expanded into skills training, especially for women as health workers, as well as art and sports programmes.

“It is very sad” for a country that carried out a great revolution 200 years ago, making Haiti the first independent black republic in the world and the second independent nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States), to be hit by such a tremendous tragedy, that only exacerbates the terrible misery and poverty of the Haitian people, said Cribb.

An estimated 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, in a country that has suffered decades of dictatorship, political instability, foreign meddling and the indiscriminate exploitation of its natural resources, and which has no real construction standards, little infrastructure and a barely functioning state.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, was hit by four hurricanes in 2008, which caused over 900 million dollars in losses.

Based on his knowledge of the concentration of population in Port-au-Prince and the city’s topography, Cribb said “It is quite possible that well over 100,000 people have died,” as Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said.

The lesson is that “Haiti needs solidarity within the country, from Haitians living abroad, and from friends overseas to get through this,” the agronomist said.

He lamented that his fellow Haitians “had not been taking full advantage of Brazilian aid, especially in agriculture and the environment,” areas in which this South American country has developed many technologies that would be useful to Haiti.

*With additional reporting by Emilio Godoy in Mexico City.

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