As I mentioned yesterday, a recent New York Times article traced the rise of Haitian immigration to Brazil as Haitians try to find a new and better start in South America’s booming economy.
Of course, this is not the first time that Brazil has been closely tied to Haiti. In February of 2004, a small rebel movement rose up against president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and by the end of the month, the Haitian president had been forced into exile. As the year progressed, Haiti was torn apart by increasing violence between rival factions. The U.S. attempted to “restore order” by sending around 1000 Marines, but they, along with the Haitian National Police forces, faced allegations of the use of excessive force to murder Haitian civilians, allegedly at the behest of the United States and other allies in the UN. In this context, in June the United Nations established the Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) after voting to send troops in to stabilize the country in the wake of political turmoil, and Brazil took charge of the peace-keeping mission, ultimately making up a majority of the more than 12,000 troops stationed in Haiti between 2004 and the present. Brazil’s willingness to take the lead in the UN involvement in Haiti was a small step in its efforts to increase its global presence and importance under the Lula administration (2002-2010). However, the decision also means Brazil itself is now facing the question of how to conduct a successful withdrawal of troops from a country that is still trying to establish its political stability.
The fact that Brazil has been so visible in Haiti since 2004, combined with the booming economy, actually makes it a logical endpoint for Haitian immigrants. Indeed, Wesley Saint-Fleur, whose story starts off the New York Times report, confirms the draw of the economy itself:
“Then we finally got to Brazil, which I’m told is building everything, stadiums, dams, roads,” said Mr. Saint-Fleur, 27, a construction worker, one of hundreds of Haitians who gather each day around the gazebo in Brasiléia’s palm-fringed plaza. “All I want is work, and Brazil, thank God, has jobs for us.”
The inclusion of stadiums is important, as it’s not just Brazil’s economy that’s a draw; clearly, the construction and preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics have made the country a draw for others from throughout Latin America who are looking for basic work and a steady income. Additionally, Brazil’s economy stands in stark contrast to Haiti’s, which can only further suggest the value of
The other thing that’s fascinating in this is the emergence (perhaps temporary, perhaps more long-term) of Brazil as a pole that attracts workers and migrants from other countries. Central to this attraction is the emerging ideal of Brazil as a new economic haven that provides more equality and a better opportunity than one’s home country. This type of symbolism should not be unfamiliar to those in the United States, as the U.S. historically has provided a similar symbol of an opportunity to improve one’s own life and the lives of one’s progeny, even when that symbolism did not necessarily fully or accurately reflect the opportunities available to immigrants or the ways they would be received upon arrival in the United States, (whether it be the Irish in the 1840s, the Chinese in the 1860s, or Mexicans and Central Americans today). Indeed, many Haitians themselves have looked to the U.S. as a possible escape from poverty and instability in Haiti, and over 25,000 refugees and 7,000 asylum seekers have turned to the U.S. and Canada in recent years, even as the US turns away asylum-seekers. Yet the fact that Haitians are also beginning to see Brazil as a land of opportunity signifies an interesting and subtle-but-important shift not just in the dynamics of immigration in the Western Hemisphere, but also as an important marker of the ways in which
While immigrants’ decisions to turn to Brazil may indicate another way that Brazil is taking on a new global importance in the 21st century, the Brazilian government itself is more ambiguous on the question. The government has already begun to try to slow the influx of migrants, granting visas to those who have already arrived in the country but also stepping up border security. And many Haitians themselves are beginning to find that the symbol of Brazil as a successful and equal country does not always line up with realities in Brazil, as “some [Haitians] crowd eight to a small hotel room or wind up sleeping on the streets, almost reliving the misery they had hoped to leave behind.” Indeed, while Brazil’s economy is witnessing unprecedented success at the macroeconomic level, it continues to struggle with a wide income gap (reflected by the Gini coefficient), where the top 10% of the country hold 42.5% of the country’s income even while the bottom 60% only share about 22% of the national income. It is into this context that Haitians are moving; certainly their hopes are not foolish, but there are real obstacles still facing Brazil, and in many regards, the booming economy has helped the few over the many.
I agree with Gabriel Elizondo, who commented on Twitter, “All the Haitian migrants tell me they want to do is one thing: Work. Simple as that. Brazil is lucky to have them.” Brazil should not turn away the Haitians, but rather find opportunities not only for them, but for the millions of Brazilians who have been shunted aside in the race for “development” and that ultimate of Brazilian positivist goals, “progress.”