Chilean President’s Decision to Send Troops to Haiti Triggers Political Storm

Although Chilean President Ricardo Lagos won authorization from the Senate to send army troops to join the multinational force in Haiti, the fact that he announced the decision before seeking congressional approval ruffled feathers among both his ruling coalition and the opposition.

The first contingent of 120 special forces troops will travel Wednesday to the Caribbean island nation in two flights that depart at 22:00 GMT. They will later be joined by 100 infantry soldiers and 80 logistics support troops, bringing the total to 300.

The debate in the Senate in Valparaíso (located 120 kms west of Santiago) dragged on for more than four hours until just before midnight Tuesday, when Lagos’s proposal was approved by a vote of 34-11.

But even those who support the move criticized the way the president proceeded. Lagos merely announced Sunday that troops would be sent, after deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Haiti and the United Nations Security Council decided to create a multinational peacekeeping force.

Several senators pointed out that the executive branch cannot decide to send troops abroad without authorization from the legislature.

Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet and Deputy Foreign Minister Cristián Barros told the Senate that as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Chile has a role to play in any peacekeeping mission and in helping to bring about institutional stability in Haiti.

The proposal was also objected to by those who believe Aristide, the head of a legitimate democratically elected government, was removed by the United States from Haiti by force, and who criticize the Security Council’s delay in acting, as well as the Organization of American States’ (OAS) failure to act decisively in response to the crisis.

The local daily La Tercera stated Monday that Lagos was contributing troops to the peacekeeping mission as a "gesture" towards the United States and France which are leading the force along with Canada and suggested that Chile is keen on patching things up with the United States after the tension that arose between the two countries when Chile opposed last year’s invasion of Iraq.

Lagos hoped Brazil, the other Latin American member of the Security Council, would immediately send troops to demonstrate a regional commitment to helping bring about stability in Haiti. But on Tuesday the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that it was willing to send troops "within two to three months," but that it will not participate in the initial force.

The criticism and support for Lagos’s decision cut across the political spectrum, with representatives of the center-left Coalition for Democracy and the right-wing opposition parties lined up on both sides of the fence.

Sergio Fernández of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and Ricardo Núñez of the co-governing Socialist Party both criticized the failure to respect Chile’s international policy tradition of supporting legitimate democratically elected governments – as was the case of the Aristide administration, they pointed out.

Senator Nelson Avila, who was kicked out of the governing coalition in 2003, and Sergio Romero of the rightist National Renovation Party noted that Lagos had already broken with Chile’s tradition in April 2002, when he basically supported the short-lived overthrow of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela by failing to condemn the coup d’état.

Two former navy commanders, Jorge Martínez Bush the designated senator who represents that branch of the armed forces in the upper house of Congress and Jorge Arancibia of the UDI also criticized the decision to send troops to Haiti, arguing that the violence convulsing that Caribbean nation could worsen and that the Chilean contingent would run a real risk of suffering casualties.

At around midnight Tuesday, after the Senate vote was announced, army chief General Luis Emilio Cheyre avoided taking a position with respect to the underlying debate, but gave Lagos his implicit support.

"It is unacceptable for the nation not to have a common sentiment" towards the soldiers who will be sent by the government on a mission in Haiti that is "in line with international law and the characteristics of a globalized world," said Cheyre.