UN Chief's Death Highlights Haiti's Mounting Woes

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General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar pictured last August

Amidst widespread criticism of its failure to provide security in Haiti, the morale of the 9,000-strong United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) took another blow Saturday with the death of its Brazilian commander, 58-year-old Lieutenant General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar. The shooting — an unconfirmed suicide according to Haitian news radio reports — occurred early Saturday on the patio of his apartment in the luxurious mountainside Montana Hotel, where many connected with the UN mission have taken up part-time residence.

The general's death comes on the heels of a call by the UN for the Haitian interim government to hold elections by February 7, 2006, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship. The poll has already been postponed four times, and many in Haiti fear that even the projected new date is too soon to resolve logistical needs that have yet to be addressed by the Provisional Electoral Council, the Organization of American States and the United Nations. But with each passing day unchecked violence in the capital is growing at a rate equal to the resentment against MINUSTAH.

Haitians are angry that the UN force has done little to stop the wave of kidnappings and other criminal violence that have cast a shadow over the election, but MINUSTAH officials insist that their mission does not extend to fighting crime. Last week, a general strike was called for January 9 to pressure the UN to take action to halt the violence. Despite an increased presence of troops on the streets, few residents of the capital, Port-au-Prince, feel safer. The seaside slum of Cite Soleil, where most victims are taken, is off limits to almost everyone other than those connected to the gangs that run the 1-square-mile landfill that houses nearly a quarter-million people. Even the Haitian National Police are prohibited from entering the area and conducting any kind of operation without the approval and surveillance of MINUSTAH.

High-ranking federal police officials, as well as some presidential candidates, have charged privately that certain member countries of the UN Mission have been complicit in the kidnapping network, either by taking payments from cash-flush gangs to look the other way or supplying them with weapons. UN Mission spokesman David Wimhurst vehemently denies the accusations: "If the government is serious, it should come forward and offer proof. Otherwise, it's just another nasty rumor attacking MINUSTAH."

Diplomats fault the Mission for its reluctance to accept the full scope of its mandate, which allows it full reign to enforce peace — one even called elements of the UN force "wussies."

Given the mounting violence and allegations and counter-allegations flying between rival Haitian candidates, the UN Mission and other foreign groupings, holding a credible election right now becomes more of a challenge. Presidential candidate Charles Henri Baker, who trails behind frontrunner and former president René Préval, has preemptively blamed "tampering" by the international community in the event that he loses. "The next day, you will see civil war," he predicts. Préval, on the other hand, is so confident of his popularity that he has done almost no campaigning. "His record speaks for itself," says one of his key strategists. That may be true, but like all things Haitians, there's no consensus on just what that record is.