Two recent crises have overtaken the U.S.’s broader policy framework and agenda for the region. First, there was the coup in Honduras, now the tragedy in Haiti. The first was a potentially avoidable political train wreck that ended up dividing the hemisphere, the latter, one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the hemisphere’s history and an opportunity to unite the hemisphere.
Together the two countries, whose populations total just under 17 million people, have dominated the U.S. policy agenda in a region with close to 600 million people. In other words, we risk having lost our focus on genuine regional powers such as Brazil and looming political problems such as Venezuela by focusing on the immediate crises of just under 3 percent of the region’s population.
But there is hope. For all its heart-wrenching tragedy, Haiti is an opportunity to forge a broader hemispheric coalition and agenda in a way we failed in Honduras. Creating this historical partnership requires establishing a broad regional framework for monetary pledges, coordination, modalities, and goals of a comprehensive, long-term relief plan for Haiti that builds off Brazil and Chile’s long-standing commitment and the U.S.’s deep pockets and military and humanitarian presence.
Time, though, is running out.
For one, countries, such as Brazil and France, have already begun to chafe at the overwhelming U.S. military presence in Haiti. For another, the South American military alliance, UNASUR, concluded a meeting on Tuesday, February 9, in which its bloc of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina pledged $100 million and to request a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) of $200 million to assist Haiti’s reconstruction. OK, there are questions here about why a South American military association would be convening a meeting on humanitarian assistance and the wisdom of an IDB loan to a loose, uneasy military association.
But the real question is why this needs to be sub-regionalized.
The amount pledged by UNASUR pales in comparison to the $600 million the U.S. government has already committed for emergency assistance—an amount that only includes bilateral government assistance and will increase in the next few years. This doesn’t include the amount spent by our neighbor to the north, Canada, which is heavily engaged in Haiti with over $130 million pledged, or the $1.7 billion worth of debt forgiven by the G-7 countries.
In short, efforts such as UNASUR’s—whether for political reasons or even for the best intentions—risk Balkanizing an effort that deeply needs coordinated responses in collective commitments, delivery mechanisms, management, and long-term planning. And, like it or not, the U.S. and the global north are going to remain major players in this—as are Brazil and Chile.
There’s one other reason why the time for setting a multilateral framework is running out: the longer the U.S. goes it alone, the longer it does it unilaterally and the longer it allows the hard cases to set our agenda in the region. Just one example: Secretary of State Clinton has already visited Haiti twice.
So, here’s an idea: let’s convene a hemispheric meeting to discuss commitments, areas of focus, collaboration, and management for our reconstruction effort. Forget the Organization of American State (OAS) which has been completely absent in this whole effort—further sealing its irrelevance after Honduras. Imagine a scenario similar to the NATO effort in Afghanistan in which troops and development efforts are coordinated among allies with mutual commitments and joint command structures including (heaven forefend!) U.S. troop activities. In this, the U.S. may remain the main bilateral donor, and others may very well pony up more funds, but all would go into a general pool. Such an arrangement can also provide an effective mechanism to oversee and help channel money and people on the ground coming from other sources such as multilateral donors and private donations.
This could provide the much-needed fulcrum for broader cooperation in the region with governments that truly want to cooperate for a greater regional good. If handled properly—and quickly—we can move beyond the recent tensions and the lack of attention toward many of these countries to a truly unprecedented regional effort. It would recognize and build off the successful and unprecedented efforts that followed the flight of former President Aristide.
But perhaps most important: it would move regional policy from the immediate crises that have dominated headlines and U.S. policymaking toward the region in the last year. After all, we are looking for a way to engage our regional partners—having lost a number of them in the last crisis (Honduras). Now we can pitch in and lay the groundwork for future efforts.
*Christopher Sabatini is Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He is a regular blogger on AmericasQuarterly.org.