For the past five years, Brazil has been the leader of the humanitarian aid efforts of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH.) But after the earthquake on Jan. 12 that shattered the impoverished nation, Brazil’s role increased dramatically, as the South American super power became a worldwide leader in sending aid and personnel to a country where the lives of survivors had been thrown into disarray. Diálogo magazine spoke with Col. Alan Sampaio Santos, chief of the social communication section of the Brazilian battalion in Haiti, about the challenges that have arisen in the Caribbean country.
Diálogo: What was your initial reaction as soon as the earthquake struck?
Santos: The general devastation. It was a huge feeling of impotence, because we saw a lot of suffering, but we were not prepared for something so large and severe. The help had to be immediate. We wanted very much to help, to do more, but unfortunately, we had no way to do so. It was very sad. To see the number of dead scattered in the streets was also something that had a big impact. It has now been [more than] a week since the tragedy, and a lot has improved, mainly regarding the assistance we are able to provide, but there is still a lot to do.
Diálogo: How is the distribution of humanitarian aid coordinated?
Santos: MINUSTAH has established centers for humanitarian aid and has also established some parameters for the distribution of food that is arriving in Haiti. There are two main centers to which basically all the supplies that arrive here are being taken.
Diálogo: And how is the distribution being done? Can people go directly to these centers?
Santos: These are big storage warehouses. All the institutions authorized to distribute food go to these two centers, they pick up the food according to their capacities, and these same organizations are the ones responsible for distribution, at locations also determined by their personnel in charge.
Diálogo: Are there food distribution centers in the areas that are under the security of the Brazilian military?
Santos: Actually, these places are areas where we control security, but with the earthquake, we are doing our best to also incorporate food distribution to those in need, who are many.
Diálogo: Are Brazilian troops or military personnel from other countries involved in the reunification of families?
Santos: We are not working on it because the mission of the Brazilian battalion, for example, is to provide security. It is very important to highlight that without security, it would not be possible for any of the international agencies that are working in Haiti to continue with their work. It is our priority to keep the environment stabilized in such a way that all the agencies can perform their jobs: rescue, clearing the streets, humanitarian aid distribution, etc. In summary, it is currently possible to move freely around Port-au-Prince, so that all those who wish to work can work. Contrary to what some international news agencies have highlighted during recent days that violence was increasing, there is a very high level of movement around Port-au-Prince, and all those who wish to help the Haitian population are in a position to do so.
Diálogo – How do you compare the current ability to move around the streets of Port-au-Prince compared to before the earthquake?
Santos – As far as freedom of movement goes, the situation hasn’t changed much compared to what it was prior to Jan. 12. In the first stages of post-quake operations, we had more difficulties due to abandoned vehicles, bodies in the middle of the street … but we are now managing to move around despite the chaotic traffic situation. People are managing to move around and carry out the activities to which they are assigned. If there were no security, the NGOs, the UN and other organizations would not be able to perform the work they are currently doing.
Diálogo – What is the policy for the Brazilian military – and for other countries, if you know – when a person approaches someone in uniform to ask for food, water or help?
Santos – We have been trying to help the entire population. Our current contingent is approximately 1,300 men, and we are all working toward the goals of humanitarian aid and maintaining the level of security, and we have been helping as much as possible. Even if we are more focused on security, as I mentioned before, our cars always drive out carrying water and food, and individual cases are assisted as far as possible. I believe this policy is the same for all countries.
Diálogo – Brazil has been the leader of MINUSTAH and has supplied security in Haiti for at least the past five years. What will the Brazilian military’s role be in Haiti moving forward?
Santos – All this help is very welcome. This idea of Brazilian leadership is “leadership” in quotation marks. Brazil has a very active position in Haiti, but not a leadership position, instead one of dedication, of work, and I am certain that international help at this time is extremely welcome. All the initiatives that we have witnessed until now have been coordination initiatives and ones leading to joint planning. The main thing is that we can all work in coordination and in the best way possible.
Diálogo – Will Brazil’s participation in Haiti remain the same in the future?
Santos – I believe so – only now with much more help present from other countries. This is wonderful. The international community has turned its attention to Haiti, and this is the time for Haiti to turn things around and move toward development and receive the solidarity of the world.
Diálogo – The media have reported there have been some conflicts between Brazil, other Latin American countries and the United States. Are the reports accurate?
Santos – I have not seen any conflict. The media announced some sort of conflict, but it does not exist. The leadership of the United States, of MINUSTAH and of the Brazilian battalion already have met, coordinated, and determined what each will do. I am certain that this joint work will be very fruitful, especially for the Haitian population.