Monday, July 13, 2009

Haiti, the Repressive Tactics of Brazil's Military, and the U.N.'s Dubious Cover-Up of Violence

In June, Haitian Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest, ally of Jean Bertrand Aristide, and participant in the Lavalas movement in Haiti, died in Florida. On June 18, his funeral service was held in Haiti, and thousands of supporters gathered to pay their last regards to one of their movement's leaders. However, the funeral ended ugly, as UN troops opened fire at the gathering, and one man was left dead. The UN insisted at the time that troops had fired into the air, and that they fired only when they were "apparently attacked by stone-throwing demonstrators from different parts of the town center." Of course, the story didn't make much news in the U.S., which couldn't care about Haiti less if it tried. It also remained generally unreported in Brazil, which has an actual stake in the events. Why? Because Brazilian troops are the main forces serving as the U.N.'s "peacekeeping" forces in Haiti, in what is one of the largest mobilizations of Brazil's military since the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. This is no small source of pride for the military, its supporters, and various "nationalists" in Brazil, who point to the important role they are playing in the international diplomatic community, and how the military that just 24 years ago ended its repressive regime is now helping maintain peace and "bring democracy" around the world.

However, the killing and violence at Jean-Juste's funeral betrays that vision, as well as the U.N.'s version of the story, as reports are now coming out that the Brazilian troops fired into the crowd and not into the air, and the U.N. is trying to cover up the incident. Despite the U.N.'s and Brazilian general Floriano Peixoto's insistence that the troops only fired into the air, there is video evidence showing troops firing towards the crowd as well. What is more, the U.N.'s and Peixoto's defenses are more than a little suspect. Peixoto was quoted immediately afterwards as saying he did "not believe... that the soldiers fired on the people with live ammunition...I'm convinced that this did not happen." That's not exactly an overwhelming case there, and the complete lack of any evidence that he himself could cite (beyond his "belief" and "conviction") doesn't mean that the troops didn't fire into the crowd. And the U.N.'s reliance upon "unspecified preliminary information" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the innocence of the Brazilian troops, either - it's "preliminary" for a reason, and when more detailed evidence (like an autopsy) shows that bullets, not rocks, killed the individual, you shouldn't try to ignore the report. Not if you're responsible for "peacekeeping."

While some (and to be clear, far from all) Brazilians point to the way in which the military has reformed in the last 25 years, this case reminds us how little the military has changed. Indeed, these tactics of firing into crowds to "keep the peace" are nothing new within the Brazilian military. They actually marked the policy and treatment of protests during the 1960s, culminating in the deaths of individuals like high school student Edson Luis de Lima Souto and leading to the Brazilian dictatorship's most repressive phase. And these tactics were and are not limited to the military dictatorship. Firing indiscriminately into crowds is common among the military police when they invade favelas, and the failure of Brazil's government, media, or society to question these tactics has only reinforced the impunity of the military in its treatment. For all of these reasons, the military's response in Haiti on June 18th is not surprising, nor is it the only case in which Brazil's military has dealt with its "peacekeeping" mission with less-than-peaceful tactics.

All of this matters for several reasons. First and foremost, there is the fact htat nobody seems to care about the situation in Haiti, and the U.N.'s dubious approach to its mission there. It's hard to explain how firing into crowds at a funeral is "peacekeeping." The fact that there had been protests for a higher minimum wage over the previous two weeks is not a defense; indeed, in one of the poorest countries in the world, you would think people might want to address that issue with constructive policy formulation, rather than "peacekeeping." Then there is the issue of the U.N. effectively trying to cover up the incident of June 18. I'm far from a believer that the U.N. can only help, but this effort is ridiculous. There seems to be no direction in the Haitian mission, no constructive path that the U.N. is offering, and that's depressing, given that the U.N.'s alleged objectives as an organization. Finally, there is the issue also matters in terms of the tactics and direction of the Brazilian military. Certain sectors of the civil and military society in Brazil have insisted that things have changed since the dictatorship. Yet to this day, the military employs the same repressive and brutal tactics that it employed during the dictatorship, be it in the favelas or in Haiti, revealing just how little has changed over the last 45 years. And the fact that no Brazilian politicians, including Lula, are questioning the military on this is grim but not surprising.

Thus, the events of June 18 were certainly tragic, but their impact is not limited to that day alone. The problems extend beyond the funeral of a man, the death of another, or the repression of a political group in Haiti, and include the continuation of repressive tactics within Brazil's military institutions and questionable actions and explanations on the part of the U.N. itself. It would be good for others in Brazilian politics, the military, and the international community to call out the U.N. and the Brazilian troops for the actions not just of June 18th, but for the entire "peacekeeping" mission and its apparent lack of direction. But that would require people to pay attention to and care about Haiti and Haitians, and unfortunately that just isn't going to happen anytime soon.