(IPS) BUENOS AIRES -- During a visit to Buenos Aires on Mar. 22, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Argentina's contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Haiti -- but said nothing about the long overdue aid promised by the wealthy nations for the perennially devastated and unstable Caribbean nation.
"Argentina is playing a truly vital role in the multinational peacekeeping forces in Haiti," Rumsfeld said after a meeting with Argentine Defense Minister Jose Pampuro. "Theirs is an important service to the hemisphere of which the people of Argentina can be rightly proud," he added.
Troops from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay are participating in the Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, whose constitutional president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown with U.S. assistance on Feb. 29, 2004.
Their task is becoming increasingly difficult, however, in the face of a new wave of violence.
For his part, Pampuro said that the work of the South American forces in Haiti "is a remarkable example of regional responsibility," adding that it is "the only case of a Latin American country receiving joint aid from other countries in the region."
He noted that regional cooperation in this endeavor "entails certain advantages but also greater responsibilities" for the participating nations.
According to Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga of the New Majority Center, a local think tank, Washington wants the South American countries to keep up their role in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and even increase their presence during the elections scheduled to take place there in November.
Rumsfeld's request has come at a time of rapidly deteriorating security conditions. On Sunday, two UN soldiers were killed in clashes with former members of the Haitian army disbanded by Aristide.
But the U.S. defense secretary made no public statements about the financial contributions urgently needed for the reconstruction of infrastructure in the Caribbean nation, called for by the UN secretary-general's special representative to Haiti and head of MINUSTAH, Chilean diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdes.
Pampuro and Rumsfeld reportedly discussed the issue in private, and refused to take questions from the local and foreign journalists attending their official press conference.
MINUSTAH is made up of more than 7,000 military troops and civilian police officers from 34 countries. It replaced the Multinational Interim Force (MIF), composed primarily of U.S. and French troops, in June 2004, and its mandate will expire this coming June 1.
In June 2004, the Argentine congress agreed to send around 600 troops, military vehicles and a field hospital to Haiti. Congressional approval came after heated debate in which opposition members questioned Argentine participation in a mission following the controversial overthrow of Aristide.
The Haitian leader, faced by growing criticism from the opposition, was besieged by U.S.- equipped armed groups and members of the disbanded army who gradually took control of the country's territory over the last months of 2003. On Feb. 29 of last year, when the capital was surrounded by these opponents, Aristide was captured and flown out of the country on a U.S. plane and taken to the Central African Republic.
The official version of events, accepted by the UN, was that Aristide had left behind a letter of resignation. But Aristide claimed that he had been forced to step down and leave the country by U.S. Marines.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) backed Aristide's allegations and called on the international community for an independent investigation of the case. As a result, the legitimacy of successive UN missions in Haiti has been called into doubt.
Juan Tokatlian, an Argentine expert on international relations, said at the time that a UN mission was tantamount to validation of a coup d'etat. The UN Security Council's backing of the intervention was a "legal but illegitimate" resolution, he added.
Sociologist Emilio Taddei of the Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO) called the Latin American mission in Haiti an "extremely grave occurrence."
"For the first time ever, Latin American armies are intervening in another country in the region, at the request of the United States and France," he told IPS.
For Taddei, who is also a member of the World Social Forum international council, "humanitarian missions are the new disguise for the old colonial invasions that served to legitimize a coup d'etat." This Haitian case is even more serious, he added, because the situation there has become "bogged down."
Nine months after the Argentine troops were sent in, instability continues to reign, and the country's reconstruction, dependent on the funds pledged by the multilateral financial institutions and developed nations, has yet to begin.
In January, when Argentina was chairing the Security Council, the mission's mandate was reconfirmed, but those responsible for it called for "urgent" measures to establish internal security and repeated their request for the promised funds to be provided "without delay."
In July of last year, representatives of the UN, the World Bank, the United States, Canada and the European Union met in Washington for a conference of donors and approved a budget for $1.37 billion in aid for Haiti.
Valdes says that only a fifth of the money promised, some $250 million, has been handed over. The donors met again last weekend in French Guiana and reiterated their commitment to providing some 700 million euros ($920 million) in funding for close to 400 projects.
"I would be very disappointed if we left Haiti without putting that money on the table," Valdes told the donors.
Rumsfeld's visit to South America will continue Wednesday in Brazil. It is aimed at promoting Washington's hemispheric security agenda, which focuses on two top priorities, terrorism and drug trafficking, according to statements made last week by General Bantz Craddock, commander-in-chief of the U.S. army Southern Command.
For his part, Fraga believes that Washington is seeking to curb what it views as the "pernicious influence" on the region of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and to prevent the destabilization of Bolivia, where President Carlos Mesa recently threatened to resign over peasant demands for land.
Pampuro and Rumsfeld discussed the possibility of resuming joint military exercises in the South American country, which would have to be approved by the Argentine congress.
Lawmakers blocked such manoeuvres last year because Washington demands that its soldiers be granted immunity from prosecution for possible crimes committed while on duty, including crimes against humanity.
The two defense ministers also studied potential scientific and technical cooperation projects, particularly with regard to air space control aimed at fighting drug trafficking and terrorism.
Rumsfeld expressed his appreciation for the hospitality shown to him by the people of Argentina, which will be hosting the Americas Summit in November. Teams from the two governments met to discuss security measures in preparation for President Bush's attendance at the hemispheric conference.
Accompanied by a phalanx of 60 bodyguards, Rumsfeld was "welcomed" to Argentina with an array of protests staged by leftist groups, ranging from roadblocks to public demonstrations to the detonation of an explosive device packed with leaflets at a Buenos Aires branch of U.S.-based Citibank.
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