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UNASUR Takes United Action to Rebuild Haiti
By Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, March 2010


The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) on February 16 decided to create a US$300 million fund to help rebuild earthquake-shattered Haiti. Leaders of the continental bloc, convening in Quito, Ecuador, met with Haitian President Rene Preval and agreed to ask the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for a low-interest $200 million long-term loan for the fund, while the individual governments will raise another $100 million. As part of this proposed fund, Peruvian President Alan Garcia offered $10 million for school reconstruction and water projects.

Each country's contribution will depend on its capacities and its Gross Domestic Product while the IDB loan will be assumed by all the UNASUR member states. No doubt, this positive action by UNASUR will provide a tremendous boost to its international profile.

In an immediate reaction, the president of the IDB, Luis Alberto Moreno, expressed support for a fifteen- to twenty-year US$200 million loan to supplement the proposed fund.

During his discussions with the South American leaders at this special summit, Haitian President Rene Preval emphasized, not only the need of rebuilding his country, but also of restructuring the nation in order to avoid similar tragedies in the future. He praised the prompt and efficient aid provided by Cuba and Venezuela in the health sector, and commented on a recent agreement with both governments to increase that support.

The proposed UNASUR fund will be used to finance three priority areas of crucial needs identified by the Haitian President. These are:

1) Reconstruction of roads and electricity generation which will need material resources, machinery and the collaboration of engineers to rebuild the country's infrastructure;
2) The redevelopment of the agricultural sector to ensure food production through the donation of seeds, supplies, and fertilisers, support in creating drinking water aqueducts and agricultural irrigation systems, as well as the advice and involvement of technicians.
3) Cooperation in health matters, including the increase of actions recently implemented by UNASUR's Council on Health, such as the collaboration of doctors and experts to take care of injured and sick people and to apply preventive measures against epidemics.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, who hosted the meeting, called for a sustained regional response based on “South-South cooperation.” He explained that the massive and immediate aid provided by more industrialized countries “is not always the most efficient,” since “a lot of that is lost over the medium term, leaving the country weak and with serious distortions.”

He added that UNASUR member nations should scrap tariffs on Haitian imports and consider subsidizing natural gas exports to the shattered nation. He also felt that member countries should consider contributing 25 cents per inhabitant to the US$100 million fund. Further, he proposed promoting at the United Nations the total cancellation of the Haitian bilateral and multilateral debt.

Many South American countries have been linked to the Haiti situation even before the devastating earthquake. Currently, military and other personnel from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia make up the backbone of the major United Nations peace-keeping effort there.

Immediately after the earthquake struck on January 12, UNASUR countries rushed doctors, search-and-rescue teams and food and emergency supplies to Haiti. Brazil, which leads a United Nations peacekeeping contingent in Haiti, had already pledged about US$17 million to the country, the most among UNASUR and other Latin American nations. Then in further action on January 26, President da Silva signed a decree on January 26 providing the equivalent of US$200 million in aid to Haiti.

Venezuela also plunged in with immediate assistance by canceling Haiti's oil-related debt and donating 225,000 barrels of fuel. Colombia also sent more than 200 search-and-rescue personnel and committed hundreds of tons of humanitarian supplies.

The weaker economies in the bloc have also played their part. For instance, Ecuador has sent rescue teams and donated several tons of food. And Guyana has donated more than US$1.4 million to immediate relief efforts, and in addition, through donations of cash, food and clothing from the general populace, has also shipped many tons of relief items to Haiti.

Significantly, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, during the discussions, opined that UNASUR must become “a great space of solidarity” and urged the creation of a permanent “South American Solidarity Brigade” to help extreme situations such as in Haiti. This is an interesting and workable proposal and action should be taken on it. Ten years ago, in January 1999, as Guyana's ambassador to the OAS, I proposed, during a meeting on the effects of natural disasters, that the hemispheric Organisation should set up a permanent disaster assistance unit to deal with such crises. Unfortunately, there was no follow-up on this suggestion. Without a doubt, such a highly desired unit would have provided crucial assistance to Haiti immediately after the earthquake struck. President Lugo's proposal, therefore, if followed through, can fill this need and provide vital regional leadership in times of natural disasters.

Caracas, 25 February 2010

(The writer is Guyana's Ambassador to Venezuela, and the views expressed are solely his.)