As the sun makes its descent, troops file back past a sentry post. A group of about 50 soldiers in exercise gear, a model of choreography, turns a corner on the tarmacked road. Following closely behind them, a truck bellows white smoke: a fumigation team to keep malaria at bay.
The commander’s office is located in Delta Camp, one of the mission’s nerve centres. Pereirahas just returned from a lunch with the UN Security Council, in town to review Minustah’s mandate, up for renewal every October. Responsible for security since President Jean-BertrandAristide was toppled in 2004, the UN voted to reduce troop numbers at the end of last year, with further cuts made in April. The mission is clearly eyeing an exit tragedy.
Pereira exudes easy-going warmth, showing off a collection of trophies on his coffee table and a framed picture of him skydiving next to his desk. He is also refreshingly open – something that causes the American press officer sitting in on the interview to wince on occasion – but keen to point out that there’s a lot more to the mission than negative headlines. “Brazilian troops did a survey with residents, including whether the UN should leave, and it came back about 85 to 90 per cent positive,” he says. “The majority of people like us.” He admits he would be lying, though, if he said he could control all the people under his watch. “If something happens, all this [good work we’re doing] gets thrown in the gutter.”
The heavily armed convoy of jeeps and trucks sets out. The first stage of the patrol will be in vehicles, finishing on foot. Cité Soleil has a reputation for violence, infamous for breeding political gangs loyal to Aristide. Yet despite the obvious signs of poverty – shacks squeezed together, thin alleys with washing lines strung across them and chickens wandering around – much of it looks in better condition than the tent cities dotted around town.
On the jeep ride back to the base, the engineers in the front seat discuss their impressions of Haiti. “When I first came here I didn’t get shocked because we have some very poor areas in Brazil,” says First Lieutenant Aline Amado. The driver next to her, First Lieutenant Silva Oliveira, concurs, adding that “the pacification that happened here is very similar to the one that took place in Rio”.The similarities, though, go beyond Brazilian peacekeepers’ favela know-how. Brazil’s frontline involvement with Haiti since 2004 has clearly had an effect on the way it is perceived. On the main arteries of the capital – one of the world’s worst cities for traffic jams – the colourful public transport buses known as tap-taps sport images of Brazilian footballers such as Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. Haitians, big fans of murals, frequently paint Brazilian flags on their walls.