Celso Amorim on Brazil/Minustah occupation of Haiti

During a guest appearance on Brasil 247’s Globalistas, a web TV program which I co-host with Nathalia Urban,  former Brazilian Foreign Affairs Chancellor Celso Amorim spoke about Brazil’s role in Minustah, the multilateral UN occupation of Haiti which began in 2004. With the goal of contributing to the debate of the current political conjuncture in this Brazilian election year, we’ve decided to share this edited and translated transcript of that conversation. The full program can be viewed, in Portuguese,  here

Brian Mier:  What are your thoughts about Brazil’s role in Minustah, including the Cite Soleil massacre?

Celso Amorim: This is a big subject that could take up an entire program. I followed these events closely as Chancellor of Foreign Relations and afterwards as Defense Minister, but it was primarily while I was Chancellor that I dedicated a lot of my time to this issue. If you look at the media reporting at the time, for exampleand I am not denying that members of the military committed excesses, I’ll comment on this later. However, the main criticism at the time was that the Brazilian troops were too soft. There was even an article in the Economist that called the Brazilian troops sissies, saying they were excessively soft. I remember a conversation with Condeleeza Rice in which I said, “look, if you aren’t satisfied with us, we’ll leave.” I wasn’t Minister of Defense at the time, I was Minister of Foreign Relations and didn’t accompany all the details of the operation, but we never received any criticism from the UN. We did what the UN told us to do. Gérard Latortue, leader of the provisional government of Haiti, was asking us to use much more force. If you look at what the UN was saying at the time, primarily the US and some countries in Europe, it was that they all wanted us to use more force.

I am the last person who would defend General Heleno but I will say that during the time I was Minister I didn’t receive one complaint about him from the UN. At the time, we didn’t even hear any complaints from the NGOs. Later, many complaints from the NGOs appeared. I’m not saying they are unfounded or that there shouldn’t be investigations. But Rene Préval was only able to take power as President because the Brazilian troops guaranteed it in many different ways. That was a very difficult moment. When Préval won the elections, the international community”, which included the United States, Canada, France and the UN itself wanted there to be a second round election. This would have been completely irregular, because there was fraud being committed against Préval. I told this to Condeleeza Rice and Kofi Annan, after getting authorization from President Lago of Chile of course, because Brazil was not in charge of the UN Operation in Haiti, it was the Chilean, Gabriel Valdez… After I had been authorized by President Lagos I told them that the Brazilian troops were not going to shoot at civilians. So, on the one hand, during the battles with Guy Phillipe, the ex-military and drug traffickers their may have been mistakes. I’m not saying they didn’t happen. To the contrary, I believe that they happened, but at the time no evidence was presented to us.

Anyway, Brazil made the decision to tell Rice and Annan, “we are not going to do this – Préval won the election. They tried to steal it from him but didn’t succeed”. This is what guaranteed his taking power, along with the Haitian election authorities decision. After the earthquake, Brazil didn’t have the same level of influence inside Minustah anymore- it was a transition period. At that point the US tried and succeeded in preventing Préval from being reelected. I visited Haiti after that representing my boss in an OAS mission and ended up having a bit of a misunderstanding with them, because it was clear that they wanted to come up with some kind of quick solution and their strategy for this was totally wrong. Anyway, Brazil participated in Minustah with nearly every other country in Latin America. It was the first UN peace mission which had a large level of participation from Latin American countries. Brazil had the largest presence but Chile, Argentina and Uruguay were there too. We weren’t just taking orders from the US and I’ll give you a clear example of that: Préval’s election. Condeleeza Rice and Kofi Anan were saying, “let’s go. Let’s have a second round” and I said, “Look. This isn’t Switzerland. Everyone knows Préval was robbed and even so, he’s got 49% and the second place candidate has 10%.” I could go into more details if we had more time but it was clear that fraud had been committed against Préval. He opened up a huge lead, and then ballot boxes started appearing in which half the votes were blank ballots. In a country like Haiti with all the violence, why would someone risk their safety just to go out an cast a blank ballot? It was absurd. Obviously it was being manipulated. And the Brazilian presence guaranteed Préval was able to take power.

I went to Haiti several times, maybe 13 or 14 times after that, both as Foreign Affairs Chancellor and then as Minister of Defense. Every time I went I met with Préval and I met with people on the left. By this time, there were a lot of complaints. Haiti is a complicated country. Remember when we came in, it was not just approved by the UN Security Council but was an official UN Peace Keeping mission, different from the military invasion of 1994 [which reinstalled Aristide], that was accepted by the UN but was just a multinational military force. Our participation was as part of a UN military force, obeying UN rules and reporting to the UN Security Council and this is why Brazil accepted the invitation to participate, as did most countries with any weight in Latin America.

Obviously this does not justify committing crimes. All reported crimes should be investigated, even if it takes 10 or 20 years. But the reality was a little different. And the alternative there was, if UN troops didn’t come in, a government by ex-military officers connected to narcotrafficking groups – which was a group of people who were both far-right and narcotraffickers at the same time.

Mier: There is a narrative being spread by some people on social media that directly blames Lula for the Cite Soleil massacre…

Amorim: This is a marginal, manipulated argument. We did what the UN asked us to. If you are going to blame him you also have to blame Kofi Anan and everyone else. The political leadership of Minustah was not controlled by Brazil. Furthermore, we didn’t receive any criticism from them. The only criticism we received, and I am speaking frankly here you can look for newspaper articles from the time was the opposite, that we were being too soft. Nevertheless, it’s very likely that some of our troops committed crimes. But it’s not true that… I don’t want to stir this up. I don’t have any love for General [Augusto] Heleno, and I know he doesn’t like me. In fact, during the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration he accused me of conspiring against the image of Brazil – I’m not sure if those were his exact words but it was something like that. I don’t have any love for him. But I will say that this story that is frequently repeated that it was the UN that demanded he be pulled out of Haiti is not true. It’s not true.

Mier: There problems caused by other national delegations in Minustah. For example, the Nepalese delegation hired a waste disposal company for its base that was allegedly owned by Rene Préval’s wife, which simply dumped all of the base sewage into a river upstream from where women did laundry, causing cholera to return to Haiti for the first time in over 100 years and killing 20,000 people. And there are many reports of rape and sexual abuse committed by Minustah soldiers from all of the delegations. However more focus of criticism seems to be on blaming Lula for the Cite Soleil massacre.

Amorim: Sincerely speaking, Brian, I wouldn’t pay much attention to this. I don’t think this has any basis in reality. I don’t think that this is the predominant vision that people have about Lula. I think it might be something that is being manipulated. Since there isn’t much bad that can be said about Lula maybe it’s something that is being manipulated. It’s highly suspicious of being some kind of international lawfare operation against Lula that has no hypothesis of succeeding because it is totally baseless. I would not pay any attention to it. This is not to say that every thing that happened doesn’t deserve to be fully investigated and all responsible parties shouldn’t be brought to justice. But I was Chancellor of Foreign Relations at the time and know that the Brazilian government never authorized or gave any kind of order to commit a massacre. I don’t even believe General Heleno gave that order. If you look at the interviews with him at the time after he was removed from Haiti, he was saying, “what do you guys want me to do? I don’t want to be tried in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.” No. The big concern of the international community at the time was the opposite of what is being said about it today. And this neither justifies nor guarantees that there weren’t mistakes and excessive use of force.

Mier: Celso Amorim, thank you for speaking with us today.

Amorim: Thank you for your questions, including the ones that aren’t very comfortable like the ones you made about Haiti, because in fact its a hard, controversial subject. I recognize that, but I spoke frankly and sincerely about my thoughts on it.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.